Category Archives: travel

San Francisco Part I: Beer & Bay Boys

I was commenting on the sheer number of gays and lesbians in the fair city of San Fran, and my new (gay) friend Richard agreed, “Here, it’s like throw a rock, hit a homo,” he laughed.

As our car rounded the corner at the bottom of an otherwise deserted strip we saw — you guessed it — another gay man.

I thought Toronto was gay-friendly, but it’s got nothing on this salty city — around 9 p.m. on the Friday we arrived we headed to the Castro. I heard hoots and hollers coming from the balcony of a bar, and looked out on the street to see a slight man, buck naked except for a construction hat and boots, crossing the street. Just another start to a Friday night in the Castro.

Being open about sexuality isn’t the only thing San Fran has the lead on — there’s the beer too.

I love it all. Before heading out I did my research by listening to my favourite beer podcast – by a couple of San Fran beer enthusiasts and sometimes brewers, called Beer School. These guys are unpretentious, full of useful information, and sometimes hilarious. I jotted down notes from their Touring San Francisco Beer cast and I was good to go – despite it being OLD for the interweb (2007) all the recco’s and spots checked out.  (For a more recent take, check out BeersbyBART a website mapping out how to enjoy craft beers at every public transit stop in the city).

The thing about drinking beer as a primary tourist pursuit is that a) it’s very easy to do it alone and meet lots of friendly people.  And b) being tipsy in a new city equals fun.


Upon arrival, I asked my hotel peeps where the Thirsty Beaver was — they Googled, but couldn’t find. That’s cause it’s the Thirsty Bear. Oh, common Canadian faux-pas.

What to drink? Why, the tasting rack of course!

This little brewpub is all organic, and very, very good. While the staple – Brown Bear – was delish. My favourites (and the Texan actuary at the bar stool beside me agreed) were: the seasonal Farmhouse Ale and the Meyers ESB, so goddamn smooth and well balanced. Love you Thirsty Bear!

After that it was off to the SFMOMA, the colours in the pop art room seemed extra bright after a 45-minute chat in a dark bar.

Little did I know that Moe’s friends, Andrew & Richard, were fellow beer nuts and the rest of the weekend would be spent in pursuit of great beer and maximum merriment.  More to come in my next post.

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Royal Ontario Museum Sleepover — a scary experience


Taking my 4-year-old nephew to the Royal Ontario Museum’s dinosaur-themed sleepover seemed like the perfect plan to win me the Favourite Auntie Award.  Not so, it turns out, if your nephew has an unnatural fear of just about every animal (dead or alive).

Still, we survived.  You can read the article I wrote about it here. Hot tip: Bring or make a fast friend the same age as your niece/nephew, and suddenly the “I want to go home to Mommy’s” dissapear.  It’s magic.  For more photos from the night, check out my ever evolving flickr page.

For those of you into such things, this event occurred about a year ago — but I just stumbled upon the article and thought I’d post it.

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Why anyone under 40 should never move to Vancouver


My friend Danica moved out West to go to university — and never came back. Ever since she’s been bugging me to go out there. And finally, because of a work trip, I did!

My only question once she’d toured me around the city in her jeep was, “why did I wait so long?” And then I began to jot down excuses for why I should move there.

I could:

1. Train as a sushi chef
2. Teach at UBC – teach what? who cares? the campus is beautiful.
3. Train as a yoga instructor. Sure, you can do this in Toronto, but it seems so much healthier in that salty sea air.
4. Work for Geist.
5. Make gourmet hot dogs or the best fish & chips ever at Pajos.
6. Run off with a hot fisherman who supplies Pajos (note this is in Richmond, not Van proper).


All very good excuses. But then I made the mistake of going out at night. Blech. Blah. Boring.

Sorry Vancouver, it might be easy as pie to get tickets to your film festival and eat at a hot new restaurant on a Saturday night without reservations (try Bao Bei it is AMAZING), but where da party at?

Your like my parents – warm, welcoming, with ample provisions that I can’t get at home. Fun to visit, but no way I’m moving in.

Bonus: Check out my photo essay on Granville Street’s vintage store signs. Save them! Save them one and all.

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Wawatay News – Celebrating beaver’s history at Mattagami

Wawatay News published out of Thunder Bay is one of the biggest Aboriginal weekly newspapers in the country — and this week, they published my story on trapping beaver with Leonard and Larry Naveau for Mattagami First Nation’s annual Beaver Fest.

Read the whole story here.  Or take a look at my pictures from the expedition on my flickr page.

Want some tasty, tasty beaver?  Go to Mattagami’s Beaver Fest this Saturday, April 24, 2010.

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Why Turkey’s Southeastern villages are (Ilisu) damned


Find out why harnessing water is so dam important to the Turks in my article for the New Internationalist. See more photos from my journey to Turkey’s largest dam, the Ataturk, and the villages along the Tigris River slated for flooding here.






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Havana & Varadero in the rain: art, nightlife and the odd slice of bikini

The trouble with all-inclusive beach resort vacations (aside from the clinical removal of any ‘authentic’ culture in the country of visit) is bad weather.

This happens rarely.  But when it does, every tourist at the resort is in serious need of a Valium to stop their chins from sinking into the white marble floor (these are available over-the-counter here, but in a cruel Communist joke, only in Departures at the Varadero airport).

Luckily we’d split the week – three days in Havana and four in Varadero.  The dilapidated capital of Cuba is so charming, it looks even better in the rain.  The pastel blues, peaches and greens of the once grand houses, now chipped away so one paint layer revels another like a patchwork rainbow, glisten bright against a dull, white sky.  After cancelling our “social projects” walking tour (bigged up in the LP) because of the torrential downpour, we skipped under the narrow concrete awnings of the buildings in the Old Town, jockeying for sidewalk space every few blocks with the rare local desperate enough to brave the wet, and into the Cuban section of the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de La Habana.  A mesmerizing introduction to Cuban history and culture, we tagged surreptitiously, behind an Jewish couple from New York, being led around by a Cuban-born American thick in art knowledge and connections (“Oh, his work is finally in major demand, I’ve got one of his in my living room…”) and less narcissistic, more artistic, commentary.

We chose one of the Spanish Club’s for lunch, waiting in line of course, and walked three flights of winding stairs into the club complete with suited-up waiters and the skulls of bulls decorating the ornate, cavernous restaurant.  The food was the best we had in the city at a cheaper price than most.That evening we went out late, to a lounge, El Gato Tuerto, near the highly recommended Hotel Nacional.  It was as if we’d been plucked into 1950’s Cuba.  You could imagine American gangsters smoking cigars at the rickety metal tables and plastic black chairs crowding the L-shaped lounge, drinking rum served by the tuxedoed bartenders. Well, you could imagine it if you stripped away some of the more modern clientele.  We played a guessing game: pick out the prostitutes, easily spotting a middle-aged British couple and the round, young Cuban woman they’d hired for the week; Her boot in his lap while his wife danced drunkenly, dizzily pulling a Cuban man toward her after lighting his cigarette at the bar.

And the music.  Hard to describe.  A short, fat woman, caked in makeup, her brows darkened like her bouffant hair-do (complete with thick black headband) to cover the grey, lips full and red, chins waggling, stepped on stage with a four-piece band and her voice – like sweet, dark caramel – enveloped the room, willing dancers to the floor.  (Check her out here). I later found via a tripadvisor post, that Migdalia Hechevarria, is a regular weekend headliner at the bar.

That was our best day in Havana.  The next morning we boarded the Hershey Train for a ride on a once luxurious three-car sugar train, built to chug sugar from the plantations in central Havana and Veradero to the coast.  Since the closure of the Hershey plant around 2003, the thing still goes four times a day, stopping every ten minutes or so at seemingly any village, house or crossing along the way, it’s main function is transporting locals – many on the dole now – from one village to the next.

It’s a rich slice of Cuban life – one that shouldn’t be missed.  Just be prepared with books, blankets (in case of cold weather, it’s open air), and stamina to endure what feels and sounds like a four-hour ride on the Mighty Canadian Minebuster, one of the oldest, most rickety, wooden rollercoasters in North America.  It’s worth it.

Next Blau Varadero, a lovely high-rise resort built just five years ago.  This modern monstrosity is everything a simple all-inclusive should be, and it’s friendly, central bar was chalk full of Brits, French Canadians, and (English ones too, although they tend not to park it at the bar for as long).  The beach hut disco is good times, and we had two days of partial sun, warm enough for me to brave a bikini, pulling off my towel every 15  minutes or so when the clouds parted (and for Conor to pull his towel back on so as not to burn his whiter than white, freckled body).

That’s it.

What?

Pictures?  You want pictures?  Check ’em all out here.

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Beaver trapping in Northern Ontario

beaver tail

Stripped of their tail, fur and legs, the six small beaver strung up side-by-side over the open fire look remarkably like the small pig carcasses commonly dissected in high school biology classes.

“They’re done when the blood stops dripping,” says Leonard Naveau, who cooks the meat slowly over four hours, watching as it turns from pink, to deep red, to near black. A retired logger, life-long trapper and former band chief, Leonard is also one the founders of the Mattagami First Nation’s annual Beaver Festival, being held this Saturday April 25th.

Many of the youth in this 450-strong band move away, seeking jobs or better schooling in the nearest cities, Sudbury and Timmins.  Today just 175 members live on the reserve, overlooking the 64-kilometre long Mattagami Lake.

Worried about the declining interest in traditional hunting and trapping among youth on the reserve, Leonard, his partner Linda Penasse, and another couple, Evelyn Boissoneau and the late Willard Harnack, came up with festival six years ago.

But the taste for beaver is highest among the newest residents to the area. The growing community of Polish-Canadians, who left cities like Hamilton and Toronto for the simple life in the nearby railway town of Gogama, are heartily embracing their new digs.  “The Polish women are crazy for beaver,” says Leonard. He expects they’ll be the first in line again this year.

McPhee Lake
On the Beaver Trail

As we zipped over snowmobile trails the sun winked at us through the thick pine, birch and poplar forests, and blinded us as we bounded across wide frozen lakes in search of beaver.

Leonard, his son Larry, and I had left the reserve early that morning. My nerves over snowmobiling for the first time were quickly subsumed by incredulity at the beauty and freedom of driving on the wide-open lakes, their white surfaces sparkling in the late March sun.  I revved harder.

Besides, I knew I was in safe hands.

Leonard spent half the year for the first 17-years of his life, deep in this bush.  The oldest in a family of seven, he was his father’s right-hand man, trapping and hunting for food and fur.  Nearly every family in Mattagami lived that way then, says Leonard.

Today it takes Leonard 40-minutes to get to his family’s trapline on skidoo.  It used to take two days; Leonard snowshoeing miles ahead of their four-dog team, to pack down the deep snow.

But out on the trapline, not much has changed.

Father and son scouted four beaver houses on McPhee Lake the day before, looking for telltale signs of gnawed trees and snow domes on the lake’s edges.

We park the ski-doos about six metres away from the first den, where the ice is still thick.  Leonard bangs a heavy metal bar against the ice listening for hollow sounds.  He hears them near the edges of the rounded den.  He and Larry chop through two sweet spots with axes, ice chunks flying.  Using oversized ladles, they scoop the beaver’s trash out of the fresh holes – dozens of poplar twigs, picked clean of bark.

Leonard Naveau
On thin ice now, each man lies on his stomach peering into his hole, looking for the passageway.  Staring past their reflections in the clear, spring-fed lake they pass a long L-shaped stick between them, poking at the den’s walls until each finds a doorway.

Designed for an instant kill when a beaver, otter or marten swims through and hits the trigger, the jaws of the conibear trap snap around the animal’s neck packing 90 pounds of pressure.  The Naveaus use large metal pliers to spring the traps, mount them to the bottom of long pieces of thin, dead trees, and fix them under water in front of the passageways.

We set nine traps that day.  The next morning we pull a disappointing three beaver from the ice.  Two are adult-sized, their meat too tough for the festival.  Three more traps are set on a nearby lake.

Over the next two days we catch nine beaver.  Leonard and Larry keep the smallest one for roasting, a sickly one is fed to the dog, the large beaver are given to people on the reserve to eat, and six of the best kits are skinned, frozen and stored until the Festival.

Last week, the North Bay Fur Harvester’s truck stopped by the reserve to pick up the Naveaus’ fall and winter pelts – about 30 in all.  The fur truck makes this trip four times a year, stopping for just 15-minutes in small and large communities in a wide loop from North Bay to Fort Frances.

Beaver pelts, if they’re sold at all, are currently fetching about $29 a piece at auction.  Leonard and Larry will be lucky to get $870 for their weeks of work.  North Bay Fur Harvesters is a co-op, trappers only get paid once their furs are sold.  But trappers like Leonard and Larry form the backbone of Canada’s modern-day wild fur trade.

So why do they do it at all?  To maintain their traditional practices, to get outside, and for Leonard who is looking to keep busy during retirement, to keep busy.  Any money they do make will go to spruce up their camp, a wooden cabin near Grassy River where Leonard’s father and grandfather’s traplines sit today, and where they bring their family to relax, fish, hunt and trap.

Eating Beaver
The Festival starts around 10 a.m.  The large, Community Centre hosts skinning and stretching demonstrations and friendly folk man craft, sales and information booths lining the gym.  Local Trapping Councils encourage you to run your hands along their tables full of lynx, marten, wolf, fox, beaver and otter pelts.

A beer garden and hot, fast food will keep you full until the feast.  When the beavers are cooked, usually around 5 p.m., Mattagami residents put out a homemade spread. Turkey, ham, bannock, and salads – lots of salads – are served alongside bite-sized beaver samples.

The houses on Mattagami Reservation tell stories of the lives lived here.  A few mansions perch on the edges of the Lake, bought with money earned in the fly-in mines, like de Beer’s Victor Diamond Mine just south of James Bay in Attawapiskat.  Most houses are modest and well kept, with requisite pick-up trucks and four-wheelers in the driveways.  A few are small and run-down.  One or two have no running water.
Aside from a few elders, you won’t hear much Ojibway spoken.  “I wish I could speak my language fluently,” says Larry, who understands but has trouble conversing in his father’s first language.  A lot has been lost in one generation.  But it’s not yet forgotten.

Last summer, two teenaged boys from the Reserve asked Leonard if he would take them moose hunting.  They took a government-sanctioned week off of school to practice learn from their elder.  Larry’s stepsons and Linda’s grandsons love to fish and hunt.  They like to watch Leonard when he skins.  In May and June, Clara Wesley, an elder from Attawapiskat, will teach moose and deer-hide tanning here, restoring a skill lost to the band.  And by summer’s end, a Trapper’s Museum will house elder’s stories and knowledge about a traditional skill that shaped their community – and the country.

Click here to see a slideshow of my pictures from the trapline.

GETTING THERE
Mattagami First Nation is 180 km north of Sudbury and 80 km south of Timmins on Highway 144.  Exit on Mattagami First Nation road, it ends at the reserve.

WHERE TO STAY
Basic hotels can be found in the nearby town of Gogama.  Stardust Motel is noteworthy for its well-kept 1960s architecture, tel: 1-877-820-4311; Morin’s All Seasons Resort offers full suites complete with kitchens for $105.00/night, tel: 1-888-221-6004.  But the best bet is the newer Lise’s Lakeview Retreat, tel: 705-894-2413.

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