Friday, December 18, 2015

Yellowpoint show wraps up this weekend

We’ve just wrapped up the Yellowpoint Christmas Spectacular’s two-week run in Cedar with 6 sold-out shows. It’s now on to the Port Theatre in Nanaimo for four final performances this weekend. I looked on yesterday and tickets are in very short supply.

Jump on it folks if you want to go. I have the feeling all the remaining shows will soon be sold out.

I couldn’t attend my wife Pat’s final Christmas concert with the Timbre! Choir in Port Alberni last Sunday. Pat always expresses to me shortly before concerts her worries that the choir will not be ready for a particular performance. I habitually chuckle silently to myself. I was between shows at Yellowpoint when I received the expected text on my iPhone from her. “Best ever” the text read.

 FINAL WEEKEND - FRI. DEC 18 (7pm), SAT. DEC 19 (3pm & 7pm), SUN. DEC. 20, (3pm)

My father made this plywood cutout of carolers in 1946. The cutout was mounted that year on the roof of our family home on South Crescent in Port Alberni. I still display the carolers in my front yard at Christmas. The decoration has never been repainted, its vivid colours intact, likely due to the amount of lead allowed in paint at the time. 

 I recently found this black & white photo from 1946 of the plywood cutout mentioned above. The carolers are mounted for the first time on the snowy roof of our family home. 

Some folks in our Nanaimo neighborhood go all out. This close-by neighbor has no less than 12 fan-driven decorations occupying every square foot of their front yard. Seeing them all deflated during the day when the power is shut off is not a pretty sight. However, at night the display is unquestionably a car-stopping spectacle.
Sinatra explored as never before.

The past several weeks I’ve been wading through a 992-page tome called Sinatra: The Chairman by James Kaplan. I also downloaded from iTunes Ultimate Sinatra ($10), a single-disc containing a cross-section of Sinatra's unparalleled recording career. Led by 'All Or Nothing At All' and closed with a previously unreleased alternate version of 'Just In Time,' the collection is stacked with standouts, including 'I'll Never Smile Again' (1940), 'I've Got The World On A String' (1953), 'In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning' (1955), 'I've Got You Under My Skin' (1956), 'Come Fly With Me' (1957), 'The Way You Look Tonight' (1964), 'Fly Me To The Moon (In Other Words)' (1964), 'Strangers In The Night' (1966), 'My Way' (1968), and 'Theme From New York, New York' (1979), among many more. I decided not to spring for the elaborate 4-disk Centennial Collection at $40.

Sinatra: The Chairman is a riveting read. One reviewer Globe correspondent Julia Klein in my opinion put it best, saying the book is “a juicy, painstakingly researched, excitingly written examination of a brilliant musician, an uneven and temperamental actor, and a charming erratic, deeply flawed man.” Wow, that’s a mouthful.

Having lived in Los Angeles while attending music college in the late 50’s and early 60’s, I most enjoyed the detail to the events surrounding Sinatra’s recording sessions that took place in those years at the new Capitol Studios on Vine Street just a few blocks from where I lived. It gave me a new appreciation of the songs as I listened to them while reading the book.

Regrettably for my taste, at times the music almost seems secondary given Sinatra’s lifestyle which was domineered by dozens of beautiful women, The Mob, politics and booze. Yes, Sinatra had issues and the author describes them in great detail. However, whenever the text became excessively tragic for me to read on, I just punched up the CD and listened. The man’s digressions quickly faded. For me, Sinatra was and always will be the consummate vocalist. Paraphrasing the words of Frank’s mammoth hit from 1968 declare, He did it His Way.

Having a 4-day break from the Yellowpoint show I was able to get in several days aboard my electric bike. Where else except Canada’s West Coast can one ride a bike in December? However, I confess last year around this time I went for a night-time ride on my old 10-speed and didn’t realize the streets were skating rinks of black ice. I ended up sliding across our cul-de-sac on my backside with the bike on top of me. Ever since I make sure the roads are dry before venturing out.

However, there will be no bike ride today. As I write this blog it’s actually snowing outside.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Yellowpoint Christmas Spectacular underway

As I write this blog, I’ve just returned from the last dress rehearsal for the upcoming run of the Yellowpoint Christmas Spectacular. It has been a marathon two weeks of rehearsals. It’s always amazing to me how singers and dancers can commit to memory dozens of songs and dance steps for an entire production within a two-week rehearsal schedule. In comparison I feel I have it easy, being able to have the piano score at my fingertips through the entire run.

Yesterday’s final two dress rehearsals went off without a hitch except for a power failure in the morning run’s first act. I’ve always wondered what would happen in such a situation. Although the show suddenly ground to a halt, to our surprise we found out the venue had a backup generator that automatically kicked in. We did have to wait a few minutes to reboot the computers operating the stage lighting, but other than that, the show was quickly back up and running.

You won’t want to miss this year’s version of the Yellowpoint Christmas Spectacular. Take my word for it. It truly is spectacular. The production includes music by the Beach Boys, a Rock of Ages medley, Bobby Darrin songs, tunes from Grease and Moulin Rouge, a special Canadiana set and many more classical hits and Christmas favourites.

Tickets for matinee and evening performances at the Cedar Community Hall (December 4th – 13th) and the Port Theatre in Nanaimo (December 18th, 19th & 20th) can be purchased by phoning 250-754-8550 or online at There will be two performances (Dec 8th & 9th) at the Sid Williams Theatre in Courtenay – Phone 250-338-2430 or go online to

Rehearsing a scene that features a huge snow globe.

No, the Yellowpoint Christmas Spectacular doesn’t have a bass playing snowman. Band member Dave Baird found this detached head on a table backstage.  

The Met: Live in HD

Last week I attended a matinee performance at the Metropolitan Opera. To clarify, the performance was one of the series of operas beamed live from New York City via satellite to movie theatres across North America. I have been attending these broadcasts at Nanaimo’s Galaxy Theatre from their very beginnings ten years ago. If my memory is correct, the first opera was The Magic Flute and attracted less than 10 people to the Nanaimo theatre including myself. However, as the season progressed word of mouth got around and audiences quickly built to the point where one has to purchase a ticket well in advance to guarantee a seat. Some performances of well-known operas sold out two of the Galaxy’s 6 auditoriums.

The opera I recently saw was Alban Berg’s Lulu. Most blog readers I speculate would have never heard of it? I hadn’t. I had to go online to bring myself up to speed. The score uses the 12-tone composition technique pioneered by Berg’s teacher Arnold Schoenberg. Mention the term 12-tone music to many classical concertgoers and they will more often than not recoil. To them such music is rudderless and sounds tuneless.

So what is 12-tone music you may ask? I confess my knowledge of the technique is limited to a semester I took at Music College in Los Angeles. Simply put, and I mean very simply, the composer cannot repeat a note used from the chromatic scale until all of the 11 others have been used. The composer chooses the order of notes that is called the prime row. It can become pretty complicated. I can tell you my limited attempts using the technique didn’t produce anything earth shattering.

I confess it was not Berg’s score that motivated me to spend 4-hours at the Galaxy last week. I went because I knew one of the production’s cast members. Tyler Duncan played the trombone in my secondary school band for several years and sang from the age of 10 in my wife Pat’s Junior and Teen Choirs. Tyler moved on to study voice at the University of British Columbia and further study abroad in Germany. Building a successful North American solo career based out of New York, Tyler has recently joined the Metropolitan Opera Company.

I enjoyed my morning at the opera with Lulu immensely. After two acts I was beginning to wonder if I’d missed seeing Tyler as his role, being a new member of the company, was not sizeable. However, at the beginning of Act 3, there he was filling the movie screen performing a short solo as The Correspondent. I wanted to stand and cheer. I settled for ghosting my hand claps. Pat and I are so proud of what Tyler has accomplished.

Tyler Duncan singing with Timbre! during a return visit to the Alberni Valley. Tyler is performing in three Metropolitan Opera productions this season.   
Timbre! Choir’s Christmas Card

You need to hurry, tickets are selling fast for Timbre! Choir’s annual Christmas Concert. The popular concert will be presented Sunday, December 13 at 2:30 pm at ADSS Theatre in Port Alberni. Tickets are available at Rollin Art Centre, Echo Centre, Salmonberry’s, Choir Members and at the door if available.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Christmastime is Showtime

I haven’t been too prolific with my Blog Posts of late. The most recent was back in September. I thought it high time to bring my readers up-to-date on a few past activities and some about to get underway.

Most of September I was busy working as a conductor aboard the Alberni Pacific Railway in the Alberni Valley. Many trips were charters for cruise ships spending a day in Nanaimo harbour. Passengers from the ships are bused over the hump to Port Alberni where they catch the train out to McLean Mill.

I didn’t mention it in my September blog, but the Desperation Dixieland Jazz Band that I performed with for many years had a couple of windup concerts this summer. The band is now officially retired. I happen to have a couple of dozen CD’s of the band still in my possession. The CD was recorded June 13, 2004 at Scott Littlejohn’s Bastion City Recording in Nanaimo.

 Featured is Bill Cave (trumpet), Claudio Fantinato (soprano and alto saxophones), Bob McNally (trombone), Jack Clark (drums), the late Danny Bell (Banjo), Tom Pagdin (piano), and myself on String Bass.

Anyone who wants one can have one for free. However, I’m not going to mail them out. I’ll carry them around in my car so if you see me out and about, just ask.

Photo: Train Crew awaiting passengers from the Nanaimo Cruise Ship Terminal.
Engineers/Firemen Rollie Hurst & John Land, and myself as conductor.

Three Photos above:  The Desperation Band closed out their many years as a group well known for their interpretations of that happy foot-stomping style of jazz called Dixieland with concerts at the Qualicum Cheese Works and Campbell River’s Spirit Square this past summer.

Over time with various changes of personnel, the band played festivals throughout British Columbia and the US states of Washington and Montana.  

The photos shown here were taken at Campbell River with Bill Cave (trumpet), Claudio Fantinato (clarinet/saxophone), Jeff Agopsowicz (trombone), Wayne Finucan (drums), Doug Gretsinger (Bass), and yours truly on piano.

Last week I had two rehearsals with the Nanaimo based group of musicians who back up the annual Yellowpoint Christmas Spectacular. Vancouver Island Symphony Orchestra violinist James Mark is the show’s musical director. Doubling as the production’s rehearsal pianist, on Monday I begin a marathon two-week period of daily sessions working with the Vancouver based professional cast of singers and dancers in preparation for opening night on Dec. 4th.

Quoting from the YPCS website: “The Yellowpoint Christmas Spectacular is a celebration of Christmas as well as an extravaganza of music and dance, lights and decorations, laughter and tears. Now in its’ 9th year, it is fast becoming a family Christmas tradition on central Vancouver Island. Be sure to include a performance as part of your Holiday festivities.

Included in this year’s singing and dancing extravaganza are hits by the Beach Boys, a Rock of Ages melody, Bobby Darrin songs, songs from Grease and Moulin Rouge, a Canadiana set as well as many more classical hits and Christmas favourites.”   

Tickets for matinee and evening performances at the Cedar Community Hall (December 4th – 13th) and the Port Theatre in Nanaimo (December 18th, 19th & 20th) can be purchased by phoning 250-754-8550 or online at There will be two performances (Dec 8th & 9th) at the Sid Williams Theatre in Courtenay – Phone 250-338-2430 or go online to

The photos above were taken at rehearsals for last year’s Yellowpoint Christmas Spectacular show. At the left, I’m setting up my piano on stage at the Cedar Hall. Drummer Michael Wright is trying to straighten out his bass drum pedal. On the right the production’s technical crew is checking the lights and the sound for the performances at Nanaimo’s Port Theatre.

Timbre! Choir

For almost a decade I’ve not been able to attend the Christmas choral concerts by the Timbre! Choir of Port Alberni that my wife Pat conducts. I’ve always been playing a performance with the Yellowpoint Christmas Spectacular at the same time. However, I do manage to take in Timbre!’s morning dress rehearsal before I have to zip south over the hump to do a Yellowpoint show performance.

The annual concert this year is called “Timbre!’s Christmas Card”  and will be presented Sunday, December 13, at 2:30 pm at ADSS Theatre in Port Alberni.  As Musical Director Pat will be conducting her final Christmas concert with Timbre! I’m sorry I won’t be there. However, I will be playing in her official retirement from Timbre! at the choir’s spring concert on April 24, 2016.

For “Timbre!’s Christmas Card” Pat has planned an exciting afternoon of music filled with joy and thankfulness – joy at the outstanding variety of the music that will be presented and thankfulness, for the wonderful audiences who have supported the choir for 43 years.

New material being presented includes a brand new arrangement of Jingle Bells. This will be a rhythmical, happy sleigh ride for everyone. Hey Ho! Nobody Home is a humorous Traditional British Carol featuring door to door carolers who solicit food and drink in exchange for their harmony – almost like a Trick or Treat in Christmas style. Timbre! and eight soloists are featured in this piece of “joyful pandemonium”. Recommended by one of the younger members, the Josh Groban tune “Thankful” written by David Foster is a beautiful message song about “taking time to enjoy the beauty that surrounds us”.

Also included are some past audience favorites such as White Christmas, Deck the Halls and John Rutter’s arrangement of Joy to the World.

Tickets always sell fast for Timbre! concerts so my advice is get yours pronto.

In Port Alberni they are available at Rollin Art Centre, Echo Centre, Salmonberry’s, Finishing Touches, Choir Members and at the door if available.

In Qualicum & Parksville tickets are available for the Port Alberni concert at Coastal Community Credit Union.

This month on November 29 Timbre! is appearing in a combined concert with the Village Voices Choir of Qualicum Beach at Knox United Church in Parksville at 2:30pm.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Summer ends with some great music

A week ago along with my brother-in-law Dave Auld, I took in a performance by Roger Baird’s Black & White Jazz Trio from Vancouver at Char’s Landing in Port Alberni. Char’s is located in the old United Church on Argyle Street. The recycled building has become an established concert venue for not only local singer/songwriters, but also touring musical groups from across the country.

Let’s see - how can I best describe the band’s style? The simplest way would be to call their music free jazz or perhaps an exercise of collective improvisation. The group’s drummer and leader Roger Baird suggested when introducing his band-mates Miles Black on piano and Scott White on bass, that we close our eyes and let the sounds surround our senses when listening to the band’s meditative musical approach.

Percussionist Roger Baird introduces Roger Baird’s Black & White Jazz Trio at Char’s Landing in Port Alberni
Free jazz styled music is not new, establishing itself in the 1950s and 60s. The music habitually involves the abandonment of standard chord changes, normal song construction, and in some cases, predictable tone and technique. Each player is limited only by his imagination. However, listeners and musicians alike often dismissed the approach. I recall in 1961 one of my teachers at music college in Los Angeles basically saying a new recording by saxophonist Ornette Coleman was nothing but garbage. I confess at the time I too found much of Coleman’s music baffling.

As a person who grew up listening to the likes of Oscar Peterson, Duke Ellington, Dave Brubeck and Count Basie, I acknowledge I was well into my 20’s before musicians like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis and others set my ears afire.

The Char’s concert last week featuring Roger Baird’s Black & White Trio I found, at first, wearying. Some of my old prejudices regarding free jazz were still evident. However, I became more engaged by the second set. By concert’s end, I won’t say I was hooked but knew I needed to hear more of this motivating ensemble. The following day accessing Apple’s iTune site I found a 2007 recording of the trio. The album was titled Spirit Door. I’ve listened to the full recording several times now using the new Apple Music streaming service.

A word about this new online streaming service from Apple. The service allows members to listen to full-length versions of the entire iTunes catalog anytime on up to five devices. Currently I’m signed on for the free three-month trial period. When that runs out the service will cost me $9.99 per month for one device or $14.99 if I want more. Will I be sticking with my single membership? Absolutely! I’ve been listening to dozens of jazz and classical albums this summer. Normally when buying an album I’d be very selective, downloading only something I knew I wanted to hear. Now I can listen to full versions of albums, that if purchased would cost me hundreds of dollars in a month. Apple claims 11million people signed up for their free trial in the first two weeks when the service launched in July. How many keep their memberships will determine the service’s success. I just hope musicians will receive a fair slice of royalties, as the streaming service will be the final nail in the coffin of anything resembling a brick & mortar record store.

However, I digress. After listening to the Spirit Door album by the Roger Baird’s Black & White Trio I have become an unqualified fan of the band. I could never do an adequate job describing their music. If you’re interested in hearing some of their work I suggest you go online at and watch a special Shaw cable show about the band. Type Roger Baird’s Black & White Trio – Shaw story – full version into your search engine. That should get you there.

Twist & Shout Rocks Chemainus

Another musical event attended last week was the Chemainus Festival Theatre’s production of Twist & Shout – The British Invasion. I wish the show was still on so I could tell you to skedaddle down to Chemainus and see it. Unfortunately the show closed on the weekend.

When I saw the posters for Twist & Shout – The British Invasion, I figured it would basically be an evening of Beatle music. Yes John, Paul, George and Ringo made several appearances on stage throughout the evening but the show was so much more. The stage setting was a New York television variety show hosted by Roy Solomon (think Ed Sullivan) who tied the production together introducing the performances of British bands of the 60’s who came to the Big Apple to appear on his “Really Big Show.” One after another they came - Gerry and the Pacemakers, The Hollies, Freddy and Dreamers, The Searchers, Dusty Springfield and loads more. The Mick Jagger impersonation was hilarious.

Full Cast photo of Twist & Shout - The British Invasion
 At times I realized I was instinctively humming along with the cast on tunes and thought it might be just me. However, casting my eyes around the theatre I could see folks mouthing the words of songs. One gentleman in the centre row was bouncing in his seat with such enthusiasm I thought he might tumble into the rows below.  The energy level in the theatre was electrifying and it never let up.

Being a musician, whenever I see actors imitating the playing of a musical instrument, I naturally watch how well they’re pulling it off. Everyone in the show certainly had done their homework. The ‘lip synced’ drumming was especially well done. Every fill, rim shot and cymbal crash was flawlessly timed with the live musicians who were only just visible behind a scrim. I’m sure most in the audience thought the actors were actually playing their instruments.

Talented keyboardist Nico Rhodes, who doubled as musical director, skillfully led the live band.  Made up guitarist Brad Shipley, bassist Marisha Devoin, 2Nd keyboardist Patrick Courtin and drummer James McRae, all handled the mind-boggling number of 60’s hit tunes with unqualified proficiency.

The Beatles were on stage at the Chemainus Festival Theatre this summer
Tory Doctor as Roy Soloman (think Ed Sullivan)
Together again - The Martin Mars

During a break in the rain this week I nipped out in my boat to take this photo of the two Martin Mars floating together on Sproat Lake for the first time in several years.

In the foreground is the Philippine Mars painted back to its original colours when delivered to the US Navy in 1945. The plane is being prepared for a flight south of the border in the spring as part of a transfer to the U.S. National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Florida.

The familiar Red & White Hawaii Mars is shown in the background. The plane was in the air several times this summer with flights around the Alberni Valley training a group of 14 Chinese pilots and engineers who visited Port Alberni in July to learn how to fly similar large tankers currently under construction in China.

The Hawaii Mars also flew this summer under a 30-day B.C. Government contract that came about after the Dog Mountain Fire at Sproat Lake produced a great deal of bad publicity for the forest service when the Mars wasn’t used. Finally put under contract the water bomber flew forest firefighting missions on the Island, the Fraser Valley and the Interior. The Hawaii set a new B.C. Record at a fire near Harrison Lake on Aug. 2, dropping 108,000 liters of water in an hour. Many in BC want to see the Mars signed to a 5-year contract.

Do you want to Sing, Sing, Sing?

The Timbre! Choir in Port Alberni has openings in all sections for new members for their upcoming 43rd season. Rehearsals get underway on September 14. Contact phone numbers are Pat Venn at 250-723-2380 in Port Alberni or my wife Pat in Nanaimo at 250-390-7508. I have a feeling this may be Pat’s final season as the choir’s musical director. Why do I suspect this? I notice that she’s titled the choir’s spring concert on April 24/2016 Time to Say Goodbye. Hmnn…..

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Could our ingenious technology run amuck?

The Martin Mars had a contract this summer to train a group of Chinese pilots who will be flying some new 4-engine tankers currently being built in China. Then virtually within sight of the Mars bomber base, Dog Mountain caught fire. Although the Mars wasn’t quite ready to fight the fire, as they didn’t have a contract, public pressure did prod the authorities into giving a one-month fire-fighting contract to the iconic aircraft. The Forest Service’s spin the last two fire seasons has been the Mars is not as efficient as smaller more modern aircraft. Sadly that decision resulted in the loss of an entire mountain on Sproat Lake when the zippy new land-based airplanes couldn’t control the blaze. Thousands in BC are hopeful the Mars will now be given a five-year contract.

However, one can still see the government’s reluctance to include the Mars in their toolbox of forest fire fighting aircraft. Is it my imagination, but whenever there’s a media report relating to the Mars the cost of the contract seems to be always mentioned? In all fairness the cost of all the other contracts should be published as well. Yes, the Mars likely costs more but it has proven its worth over the decades and can dump more water and gel on a fire in a shorter time span than any other aircraft.  

As of this writing the Mars has attended several fires in the province and has been doing an outstanding job. Follow the Mars at

Photo: Our daughter-in-law Jessica Booker took this photo from our float as the Martin Mars was landing on Sproat Lake. 

I’ve added another flag to our float flag pole. On top of course is the Maple Leaf, below it the flag of the Colony of Vancouver Island and below that the newly minted Martin Mar’s flag.

The upper half of a burnt tree from the Dog Mountain fire. When the lake starts to rise in the fall I fear tons of similar debris will be floating on the lake. Hopefully someone has a plan to remove these safety hazards. Meanwhile the BC Forest Service continues to allow the fire to burn itself out, a decision many lake residents find unacceptable with the Mars Bomber available to put out hotspots within the fire’s perimeter.

Could our ingenious technology run amuck? 

I remember when personal computers were first introduced into the public school system. I wasn’t overly impressed with what the machines could do. However, one had to pay attention because the government was willing to dole out substantial funding to teachers willing to figure ways to incorporate computers into their programs. I was convinced it was just another passing fad and things would soon return to normal. Boy was I wrong! Today I embrace technology as much as anyone.

Yes, computers can do wonderful things but of late, many people are starting to fear them as well. Even Bill Gates, who is responsible as anyone for putting computers into our homes, stated recently in a Newsweek article that artificial intelligence is dangerous and could doom humanity.

There are so many things that computers have replaced in our lives that it boggles the mind of someone like me who was a child of the 1930’s. My career choice became that of a musician. I often think of how computers wiped out the jobs of thousands of professional music copyists. Before the advent of computers, committing musical notes to paper using distinctive fountain pens was almost an art form. Then came computer programs tied to the Internet that enable musicians to record studio quality performances in the comfort of their own home and sell the created music worldwide, eliminating almost overnight a studio based recording empire.

The computer incursion into our lives continues today at an ever-increasing rate. Today the very art of writing language longhand is threatened as elementary schools across the country downgrade cursive writing to make room for keyboarding lessons. Learning to write in my elementary school years meant having to dip a straight pen into a glass inkwell fixed atop my graffiti scarred wooden desk. Meticulously my classmates and I practiced daily to scroll so very carefully all the letters of the alphabet. Thinking about it calls to mind my mother’s beautiful longhand style that was pure artistry. Computers have obliterated that era.

Youngsters these days can’t even write their own names.  I recently read a newspaper article where an Ontario father was in a state of shock when he realized his teenage son didn’t how to sign his name in longhand on the Canadian passport application. The boy needed the passport for travel to Europe on a school field trip.

And let’s be frank. Does anyone know how to spell anymore? As I write this blog Microsoft Spell Check is silently churning away, letting me know the millisecond I’ve misspelled a word and offering suggestions to correct my flub. Unfortunately for poor spellers, the program doesn’t recognize the difference between words like  "your" and "you're". No matter, in this world of Smartphone texting, today’s youth simply avoids the effort and types “ur.”

Going back to Bill Gates’ remark that, “artificial intelligence is dangerous and could doom humanity.” Referring to computer-controlled robotics, he stated “at first the machines will do a lot of jobs for us and not be super intelligent. That should be positive if we manage it well. A few decades after that though, the intelligence will be strong enough to be a concern.” And another really smart guy named Stephen Hawking has declared, “the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race,” especially since “humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete and would be superseded.” Wow! Given that brilliant people the likes of these are expressing such concerns should alarm us all. Is our future to be placed in the hands of a bunch of robots? There won’t be a decent job left for a human to do.

Steam Days at McLean Mill National Historic Site (Port Alberni)

My wife Pat and I continue to work as conductors aboard the Alberni Pacific Railway that travels between the Port Alberni downtown waterfront and the National Historic Site McLean Mill in the Beaver Creek area east of the city. The weekend of July 24/25 was called Steam Up and Antique Machinery Show Days and featured steam operated equipment from various points of Vancouver Island. Here Pat and I are in charge of a much smaller train than we’re used to, a model railway steam ride brought to the McLean Mill steam weekend by the Vancouver Island Model Engineer Club based on the Saanich Peninsula north of Victoria.

 Can you imagine dragging this monstrous steam operated saw around in the bush to buck up a fallen tree? The photo was taken at the recent Steam Up and Antique Machinery Show at the National Historic Site McLean Mill.

 The notorious Beaufort Gang continues to harass the Alberni Pacific Railway, periodically getting away with the entire payroll for McLean Mill employees.

There is a scenic spot in the Alberni Valley known as the Hole in the Wall. Oddly, taking into account the many decades I lived in the valley, I can’t believe I never got around to visiting the locally known gem until this summer. At long last on a blazing hot afternoon last week, Pat and I decided to hike in and have a look. 

We began by parking Pat’s loyal Toyota Camry in a small pull-out on Highway 4, directly across from Coombs Country Candy where one begins the drive up the hump. Being a very warm day, walking the first section of the trail through a shade-less replanted logged off area was somewhat desert-like. However, within a short distance the trail passed into a cool forest of second growth. Unfortunately there was no signage to tell one which of several forks in the trail led to our goal Hole in the Wall so we found ourselves backtracking at one point. However, with some direction from other hikers we soon located our destination.

The watercourse running through the area is Roger Creek. Considering the drought conditions this summer I was surprised the small waterfall tumbling out of the hole hadn’t been reduced to a trickle.  The little information I could find online said the gaping hole had been blasted through the massive wall of volcanic shale to provide a direct delivery route from a reservoir that was the source of drinking water for the Town of Alberni before it amalgamated with Port Alberni in 1967.  I spotted several old wooden pipes wrapped with wire exposed alongside the trail which I deduce carried the water into town. Our visit to Hole in the Wall was well worth the trek and every bit as impressive and picturesque as I’d been led to believe it was by others. A second visit has been added to my bucket list.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Magnificent Mars flies again

This past week has been surreal at our summer home on pristine Sproat Lake in the Alberni Valley. It started July 4th as I was working as conductor aboard the Alberni Pacific Railway’s heritage steam train ride to the McLean Mill National Historic Site. The train was travelling downgrade to Port Alberni when it was suddenly robbed by the Beaufort Gang. A number of well-known valley citizens lost their valuables to the venomous thieves who escaped into the forest on horseback.

Proceeding down the grade, the rail right-of-way emerges from the woodlands near the Chase & Warren Winery. The view across the Alberni Valley at this point is quite spectacular.  Looking towards Sproat Lake we could see a thin wisp of smoke curling skyward from the top of Dog Mountain, the unmistakable sign of the birth of a forest fire. Over the train’s PA system we drew our passenger’s attention to the developing event.

On subsequent trips throughout the day we watched the fire grow ever larger in size. It was several hours before any fire-suppression aircraft appeared on the scene. On all our minds was the fact that the world’s largest firefighting water bomber, Hawaii Mars, was sitting beached on the shoreline of Sproat Lake within sight of the fire. The mighty Mars had been declared redundant by the government two years ago and was not part of their future plans to fight forest fires in British Columbia. This decision would prove to be a colossal mistake this past week. Had the Mars been operational it is likely the fire could have been contained until firefighters arrived on the ground. Instead the result was a massive wildfire that burned an entire mountain and spread to the beaches of Two Rivers and Taylor Arms.

Above: I took this picture of Sproat Lake’s Dog Mountain fire from my boat at 11pm on Tues. evening July 7. An awesome and scary event to witness live.

As the fire raged and expanded towards several shoreline cabins, social media went crazy. Why was the Mars just sitting there onshore? “Get it up and running!” Alberni residents and others further afield cried. For days the government wouldn’t budge, refusing to give the Coulson Group of Companies (a local corporation and owners of the Martin Mars) a contract to get the aircraft back in action. Finally the heat became too much to ignore, not only from the fire, but also from BC citizens of all political stripes. The government finally caved, spewing a stack of political bafflegab why they now considered the Mars Water Bomber part of their arsenal in battling forest fires in the province. The result is the Hawaii Mars will operate on a one-month contract that could be extended if the dry weather continues. Wouldn’t it be a revelation if a government agency just stated that they’d made a mistake in the first place and get on with the job.

As I write this blog the Martin Mars has just landed after completing a number of test flights including a water drop directly in front of the bomber base. Our lake house is exactly under the landing flight path of the mammoth machine and every landing is an exciting event that sets all our cupboard dishes dancing. Although safely high enough, the Mars always seems close enough to clip the treetops surrounding our sundeck.

Everyone here in the Alberni Valley and I’m sure in other parts of the province are relieved the Mars is back in service. She has proven her worth in the past and given the opportunity, no doubt will once again.

Photo: Pat and I along with our grandchildren watched the Hawaii Mars  launched into Sproat Lake early Tuesday morning for the first time in two years. The following evening the huge aircraft did a test flight over Port Alberni with the whole community cheering.

Saturday morning July 11.What is this? Am I hallucinating. I’ve just woken up and heavy rain is falling, the first seen in numerous weeks. I had to rush down to our float to get our boat covered. Last night when I went to bed the weather report was calling for light rain, not a 12-hour long deluge. Will the rain put out the fire? Possibly. However, there’s more summer days ahead and having the Mars Bomber floating in the lake on standby, ready to fly at a moment’s notice is definitely comforting.

And all that jazz….

Two weeks ago I drove down to Victoria to catch some concerts at the TD International Jazz Festival. Packing a case of CD’s, I’d decided from the moment I left home I’d listen to jazz non-stop. No tuning in on the car radio to eavesdrop on the latest talk show rants regarding political scandals. This was to be a few days submerged in music and also do a little touring on my new e-Bike.

Victoria is a superb city for cycling with some excellent bike trails crisscrossing the surrounding communities. Arriving in the Capital City, the first thing I did was ride the Galloping Goose Trail on the old Canadian National Railway grade out to Sooke.

Later the same day I rode a newer paved commuter bike trail that has been laid out between Victoria’s historic E&N railway roundhouse and the Naden Naval Yards in Esquimalt. The only drawback to accessing the trail is one must ride smack in the middle of vehicle traffic across the old Johnson Street lift bridge. The railway bridge that was situated alongside the vehicle bridge and had incorporated the separated bike path lanes has been removed to make way for the new bridge currently under construction. When finished the new bridge will include designated bikes lanes and will act as the trailhead to serve the region’s Galloping Goose, Lochside, and E&N biking trails.

After bike riding most of the day it was time to hear some live jazz. The first festival event I took in was a two hour performance by the  Christine Jensen Jazz Orchestra. They were incredible. Made up of 19 musicians from Montreal the band was world class. You wouldn't hear big band jazz played any better anywhere. Jensen is a beautiful arranger and a fair portion of the program was based on her Juno Award winning album Treelines. Currently she is working on a new work that will be jazz interpretations of the paintings of Emily Carr. The concert also featured Christine’s sister Ingrid on trumpet who is based in New York City. For those blog readers who may not know, both began their music studies in the Nanaimo school system and have gone on to achieve world wide success, like another Nanaimo bred musician by the name of Diana Krall. Hats off to CBC Radio and The Canada Council for underwriting the costs of Jensen’s concert. Touring a large jazz band across the country is a rare event these days considering the current political climate relating to support for the arts.

The second concert I attended was a piano trio called GoGo Penguin from Manchester England. The group’s dazzling improvisations were based on everything from Shostakovich to the British group Massive Attack. Pianist Chris Illingworth boggled my mind with his ability to split his brain in two to state one melody with his right hand and another with his left with such breathtaking precision of metre. It was uncanny how he made it work so seamlessly. Nick Blacka’s huge sound on the double bass and drummer Rob Turner’s unyielding staccato styled rhythms filled every corner of Herman’s Jazz Club where the concert was held. The overall trance-like musicality of the group is something that has to be heard live to be believed.

Above: Christine and Ingrid Jensen perform an improvised duet backed by Christine’s big band at the TD International Jazz Festival in Victoria. 

 Below: New flag added to our float flag pole on Sproat Lake

Did you know Vancouver Island has its own flag? I didn’t until I noticed a Nanaimo neighbor flying from their balcony an unusual flag containing the Union Jack in one corner. Unable to find the flag listed on a world flag site on the internet, I asked our neighbor one evening while out walking with my wife Pat, what country the flag represented. To my surprise I learned it was the official flag for the Colony of Vancouver Island. 
Aside from having the Union Jack, the flag also features the trident of Neptune (for the ocean), a pine cone to represent the Island’s forests, and a beaver to represent the fur trade. It was approved by Queen Victoria in 1865. However events ensured a short shelf life. In 1865 the Colony of British Columbia and the Colony of Vancouver Island merged so the designed flag was never flown. Our neighbor had purchased his from the Victoria Flag Shop on Fort Street. I immediately ordered one.

This year starting Canada Day, on our Sproat Lake float flagpole we not only raised the Maple Leaf, but Vancouver Island’s very own official flag.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

E-Bike a revelation

I’ve been riding a 10-Speed bike for many years and enjoy the pursuit immensely. However, at the end of our street I have to pump my bike up an incredibly steep hill before hitting more level terrain. Lately I’d taken to dismounting and pushing my bike up the incline. My knees were beginning to wag a flag of surrender. After all I had to concede, I am a retired senior so feeling joint pain does come with the territory.

Then one morning while reading the local Nanaimo newspaper, I spotted an advertisement placed by a Qualicum store promoting a product called Pedego electric bikes.  “Come see us and take one of our electric bikes out for a test ride. Recapture the fun of being a kid on a bike again – able to go anywhere, forever” their ad declared. I jumped into my van and thirty minutes later was in the store donning a bike helmet and taking an e-bike model called the City Commuter Classic for a spin. Having spent a decade of summers during my youth at my parent’s beach house in Qualicum Beach, I knew where all the really steep streets in the area were located. I had to see if the e-bike could perform as advertised.  What a revelation! The hills I selected melted away as the e-bike zipped effortlessly up every grade. I was sold. There was no way I could leave the store without owning one.

Originally my perception of an e-bike was that it must be like a motorcycle – just climb on and the thing will cart you wherever you want to go, no pedaling necessary. That, it turned out was just ignorance on my part. Electric bikes are normal bicycles that have been built to incorporate the assistance of an electric motor. It’s more accurate to call them electric-assist or pedal-assist bicycles because they do not go unless you pedal them. However, having said that, mine has a throttle that works independently from the pedals when needed. I use it whenever I need to take off quickly from a standing stop such as after waiting for a traffic light.

When I was in Switzerland a couple of years ago with my brother Terry, I noticed that most city public parking garages had more bicycles parked in them than cars. Apparently in many European cities, e-bikes have extended the distances cycled so much that bikes are second only to automobiles in total mileage traveled. The rise of e-bikes as a practical commuting option in Europe is actually eroding sales of cars.  

After getting my new e-bike home aboard my utility trailer, I could hardly wait to take off. However, I had to be patient and wait a few hours to charge the new battery pack. Remember that first hill located at the end of our street? The e-bike charged up the grade like it didn’t even exist. I was onto the Parkway Trail behind the Woodgrove Mall in moments and heading south. Upon reaching Vancouver Island University I took a wrong turn and got a little lost on some unfamiliar side streets. However, my Apple Smart Phone GPS soon bailed me out and guided me through Bowen Park to where I was able to access the E&N bike trail and ride it northward to home.

I had a little fun on this leg of the trail. Pulling up behind three cyclists I indicated I was going to pass them on the left. I then kicked in full battery power and roared past, leaving them far behind. The group caught up with me as I was waiting for a long light change at the Bowen Road and Island Highway intersection. They were flabbergasted and had to know how a senior citizen had left them behind eating his dust. I gave them a technical rundown on the phenomenal capabilities of my new bike and told them where I’d bought it. They all wanted one. I may have given the Qualicum store a few more sales. Perhaps I’d better inquire about receiving a sales commission.

It’s an understatement to say my first extended trip with the bike was awesome. As one bike reviewer I read online put it, “it’s thrilling to add 400 watts of power to the 400 watts your body is already putting out.” Also, whenever I needed to leave the bike trails and travel on city streets, I felt much safer than on my old 10-speed because I can now keep up with the traffic. On hills, I was constantly smiling to myself as I marveled at how little effort it took to climb them.

The following day I decided to do my bit for the environment by ditching the car to do the grocery shopping via my bike. An article I’d read that very morning stated when an e-bike replaces a car, the e-bike offsets 1,550 grams of globe-warming hydrocarbons; 1,460 grams of carbon monoxide; and 770 grams of nitrogen oxides for every 500 miles ridden. Perhaps I should consider voting Green in the next election. Interestingly the only federal running politician at this point in time to knock on our door was the Green candidate for our area – an intelligent young fellow by the name of Paul Manly. I digress.

Bottom line – my new bike has extended my life on two wheels into the future and my knees are thanking me. Riding gives me a sincere connection with the community, venturing into neighborhood areas I’d never bother to go with a car. I am aware that some in the biking fraternity assert that riding an e-bike is not a pure cycling pursuit and fundamentally is lazy. However, the way I see it, it’s my car that breeds laziness, while my new e-bike will have me out riding more than ever.