On July 20th, 2014, I fell off a ledge on the side of the West Lion. My backpack shifted, the rock was slippery, and I went down fast. I slid a meter or two, feet first, hugging the wet rock. My chin took a glancing blow from the place my feet had been moments before, and I landed on all fours on a steeply pitched slope. The weight of my multiday pack flattened me out, and I slid another 15 meters downward, unable to compensate or slow my speed. My world filled with sound, the grinding roar of my backpack’s metal frame on rock, my brother yelling and yelling above me. After a few seconds I ran out of ramp, dropping into a cluttered gully of broken rock. My feet locked in, and I stopped.

“Calm down,” I called to my brother. “I’m all right”. But I didn’t feel all right. I was ten kilometers from the trailhead, on one of BC’s most technical through trails. We were surrounded by cloud, insulated against most forms of rescue. My left knee was starting to throb, as a 3 inch gash got ready to bleed. This was all pretty bad, but what hit me most was a horrified sense of responsibility. I was here with my son, my three year old hiking buddy. He was with me now, crying in the backpack, shaken but unharmed. I had fallen with my son.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. When my brother Kyle changed our plans to include the Howe Sound Crest Trail, he swore up and down that it was family friendly, a literal walk in the park. He had already done the north and south sections, leaving only an undefined middle part. I interviewed him extensively on the topic, then researched the trails myself. The BC parks brochure admonished me to watch my footing and stay on the marked path, things that I was very good at already. Internet forums were full of chest-thumping tales, where sweaty masochists discussed how fast they had “done the crest”. If it took these boisterous brutes 9 hours, couldn’t we do it in three days? Me and my brother were strong, experienced hikers, with the tenacity and general disposition of mountain goats. There was nothing ahead of us that should pose a problem.

The first day played into our expectations, rising steeply but smoothly though beautiful stands of hemlock and cedar. Waterfalls fell around us while Ryan snored gently in the Deuter pack, a heavy but robust carrier not unlike a fabric Humvee. Secured in his five point harness and wrap-around cockpit, Ryan would be my constant companion for the next three days, alternately singing, laughing, sleeping, burping, and asking where the parking lot was. We were multiday hiking, one of the best things on earth. The forest was our home, and we were awesome.

Ryan & Kyle at Deeks Lake
At Deeks Lake, day one

The second day was even easier, a short haul between friendly campsites along the trail. Thick cloud had set in, as forecast. Our views faded away, but there was beauty all around. Heather and wild blueberries, yellow lichen shining in the diffuse light. The path was simple, weather-worn with the boots of all that had come before us. We spent a quiet night at Magnesia Meadows, with glimpses of the distant city through pockets in the cloud. 14 clicks remained of our 29k hike, and Kyle knew that the last 8 were easy. There really wasn’t a lot to do, but I was worried. Something I had read about crossing the Lions, some inner sense that I would be leaving the edge of my comfort zone. As the sun went down, I texted my wife goodnight. “Tomorrow we pass right between the Lions!” I told her with exclamation points. After some hesitation, I decided not to say that I was afraid.

Ryan at Magnesia Meadows
Toddlers in the mist at Magnesia Meadows

We hit the trail at 6 am, drifting past the other tents like Gortex wraiths in the rising fog. Ryan had woken us before the alarm, speaking out of the inky black. “I know it’s just a dream,” he said, “but I think the Little Daddy is out there. If you look out the window you might be able to see him, walking in the dark.” That was suitably ominous, although not as bad as something he said three weeks before, as we sat in the living room. “Daddy, are you falling?” he asked abruptly. “If you’re falling, you have to duck your head.”

The trail took a beating just past the campsite, almost lost under steep fields of wild blueberry. Our pace slowed as we skidded and slid along, soaking ourselves to the bone with bits of cloud and bracken. In the midst of this purgatory, my most peaceful memory of the trip: an impossibly small pygmy owl, gazing bashfully at us from the branches of a fir tree. Turning his head 360° to look at Kyle, then all the way back to me, showing off in the sudden perfect stillness. A moment without cameras, without almost anything. And then onward.

This part of the Howe Sound Crest was something new, something not entirely expected. Each stage took a bit longer than planned, each scree field a little crazier. These slopes were active, shifting slightly around us. Out there in the fog we could hear movement like muted thunder. We soldiered on, each step bringing us further into the crazy zone. In one of these fields we passed two middle aged men hiking like war refugees, shell-shocked and grim. Poor chaps, I thought. Bit off more than they could chew. Then a trio of trail runners, improbably energetic. 30 seconds after they left, I realized I had once run side by side with one of them, down the Sunshine Coast Trail. That moment seemed so far away, a different person’s memories. We passed over a ridge that dropped sheer into the clouds on either side, as I held a rope that had certainly seen better days. Maybe this was the place I was worried about, I thought. I stepped onto solid trail and began to feel the stirrings of hope.

The HSCT is not kidding. James Peak traverse, photo by Natalie Ord.
The HSCT is done kidding around. James Peak traverse, photo by Natalie Ord.

We had been hiking 8 hours when I reached the first ledge. Just a rude cut in the wall of the mountain, embossed with defiant graffiti arrows. How could this be? We were caught flatfooted, totally unprepared for the sight. The good trail, the promised land, was still a few km ahead of us. The way behind was full of hazards enough, and so, I crossed the ledge. And it was fine. I passed along some more mountain track, reaching another ledge. That too went easily by. And then I reached the third ledge, what turned out to be the last one. The final place were you crab along, facing the rock, holding on to wet stone. No cracks and crevices, just the rough texture of granite to press yourself against. The drop was small, but I didn’t like the run-out below. It looked bad, disappearing off into the mist. Kyle got along just fine, and then it was my turn. I put my fear aside, crabbed the ledge, got to a place I didn’t like. I could feel my centre of gravity pulling back, tugging at me with eager hands. So I fled back to safety.

“I’m worried about this,” I said to Kyle. “It seems like I’m at my load capacity.” I really was, although I didn’t know how close. I had been pushing margins all morning, and the boundary was about to give. I tried the ledge again, this time taking one more step. The crack I was standing in was not flat anymore, canting slightly downward. I felt my centre of gravity change, and I braced against it, calling for help. Kyle started taking his pack off, a process he wouldn’t finish until I hit the scree field some 20 meters away. I remember looking at my two hands, arched over this little hump of rock, each finger pushing in. For the first time on the hike, first time in years, I wasn’t sure if I had a good grip. And then I was falling, and all the fear was gone, washed out of my mind. I was falling and I hit the rock and I was still falling.

“Well, here I am,” I thought. “Sliding down a mountain. And I’m still fairly intact, which means I survived the first bit. Now I just have to wait.” And I slid along with the backpack frame roaring and the world blurring before my eyes.

There had been other ways to get past the ledge. None of them wore great, but there were choices. I could have backed off further, divided up the backpack, enlisted Kyle’s help in a reasoned and proactive manner. I could have picked my way along the slope I was now racing down on my tummy. We could have tried to do something with our rope. There were a lot of choices that I didn’t take, because at 8 hours in you tend to go with whatever looks best at first glance. It’s actively dangerous to stand around searching for perfect ways to do things, because energy (and daylight) are so finite. I thought I could make it in safety, so I took the chance. Usually things work out, and in fact they still worked out. I skidded to a halt, and Kyle ran up to me, shouting apologies into the rain. He got the backpack up, confirmed that Ryan was intact. My son was crying freely, so Kyle held his hand. Ryan says it was this moment when he started to feel happy again, out there on the bitter edge of the north shore mountains. As for me, I crouched with my legs hugged to my chest, staring out into the fog. The aftermath as hitting, and I had to be strong. I hid the tremors from my son, let them go into the wind. I didn’t know then if I was capable of walking, let alone carrying him another 10 kilometers out. And I felt so bad about it, like I had stepped into the path of a car while holding his hand. Like I had really messed up, despite trying so hard. Messed up not because I fell, but because I had allowed myself to reach a place where falling was so easy. I came with nothing to prove, I didn’t visit these parts to learn how hardcore a dad I am. I just want to show him the world.

Without the clouds, this part of the world would have looked like this. Our route so far that day.
This is what the world looks like, when you can see more than 10 meters. Our route so far that day. Image © Hollyburn Heritage Society.

There was no time for regret. My mind was already stepping towards what was next, a sprawling list of question marks. I sent Kyle back up the hill to grab the first aid kit, then spoke to my son in a strong voice, a voice from a deeper part of me. “Ryan, we fell down, and I bumped my knee. But I’m going to fix this, okay? Daddy is going to fix this. I promise.” I’m going to fix this injury, this mistake, this place we’re in. I’m going to get us out of here, although I don’t know how any more. I’m going to do it, absolutely. “Yes,” my son said, and he stopped crying.

I pulled out my phone to check for service, and found that it had been bent into an arc by some unseen blow. I stood up on the scree slope, blood trickling down my leg, holding the world’s first curved iPhone. Feeling kind of ridiculous, I bent it back into shape. Everything was still working, and I texted Katie. “I can has injury”, I wrote sadly. It was 1:30 PM, with the day halfway done. The highest part of the hike was still ahead of us.

“What do you need?” her reply came back. No alarm, no demands for answers. Just support, immediate and real. The way it always has been.

“I don’t know,” I replied. Tiny raindrops fell on the Ziploc bag I held over my screen. I needed to get my son home, but I wasn’t sure how any more. I needed help, but help seemed remote, far away. I dreaded making the call to Search and Rescue, telling them that Dad of The Year Joseph McLean was stranded in impossible terrain well beyond the pickup points, so come and get me, boys! Hope you like carrying a stretcher up sheer mountain passes. And by the way, I totally brought a three year old!  I tied a clumsy bandage around my leg, daubed at my chin with a moist towelette from the kit. In a few minutes I’d try to climb out of this gully, see if I could still be some use. Otherwise I would have to make the call. My first aid towelette had dried out long ago, giving it the shape and texture of a saltine cracker. Typical, I thought. Typical. And that’s when I heard the voices of our rescue team.

The Howe Sound Crest Trail is a lonely place, especially when it’s being harassed by rainclouds. Although we had met a few parties heading north that day, no one else was going south towards Cypress. No one except Peter, Colin, and Natalie, who strolled out of the fog just ten minutes after my fall. They navigated the ledge with something approaching ease, walked down to us on the slope. Was I okay? Maybe. Was there anything they could do? Well… could someone help carry the kid? Just for a moment, just up to the next crest. My legs seemed to be working, but I was still unsteady on my feet. I didn’t want any more surprises for poor Ryan, not even a stagger. And that is how he came to meet Peter, or more precisely, Peter’s back. Up into the air went my pack and my boy, and off they went for the top. I called after Ryan that Peter was a good hiker and very strong, silently praying that my snap analysis was correct (some people can’t even lift the carrier). At any rate, the man was an alpine ox. I scrambled ahead, feeling buoyant without a pack. Marvelling that my knee still worked, with a gash the size of a slug. Soon we were at the top of some anonymous peak, looking back at vague ripples in the clouds that could have been mountains.

And still I hesitated, unsure if I should ask for more. I had a full range of motion in my leg, and a fine show of strength from the adrenaline coursing through my veins. If Kyle cleaned out most of my pack, I could still carry my boy. But the trail ahead was rough, with promises of more “technicalities” before the last easy grade home. I just wasn’t sure, and I said so. “We’ll stay with you for a while,” our nonchalant saviours said. “Until you get sick of us.”

And that was that. Well, that plus other things, too many to tack on. Seven more hours of hiking, no one getting sick of each other. Restorative garlic sausage on one of the countless summits of Mt. Unnecessary. Washing out my wound, which also looked like sausage. Laughing with real warmth, even as the day around us grew cold. Playing musical backpacks, so that I was left with the lightest one and Ryan was paired with his new best bud. Watching my son going up crags in his undamaged backpack, passed from hand to hand by three strangers who were fast becoming friends. Meeting my sister-in-law near km 27, just half an hour from our car, as twilight settled in to the woods.

    Kyle was not letting go of me again. With Peter and Ryan on Mt. Unnecessary. Photo by Colin Alexander
Kyle was not letting go of me again. With Peter and Ryan on Mt. Unnecessary. Photo by Colin Alexander

I took Ryan onto my shoulders for the last steps down. We were both coming out of our daze, waking up to the fact that everything was already okay. Ryan spoke up for the first time in ages, reminding us that the sound we just heard, the distant fading sound as we walked the final steps to the parking lot, was the hooting of the last woodland grouse. The soft farewell of the forest, and a smile from my child. I was utterly amazed that we were out. The feeling would last through the next sunrise, when I got back from the hospital to see Ryan sleeping peacefully on cotton sheets, as if he had been there all along.

On July 20th, I fell off a ledge on the side of the Lions. I gained some bruises, a few scratches, 8 prim stitches just below my knee. And something changed. Something left me that day, a barrier I had raised between myself and the world. I learned what it is to ask for help from perfect strangers, and I leaned that I have a unshakable strength for getting home. I found out what it’s like to betray a sacred trust and win it back. In the days following, I felt deeply ashamed, damned by my own foolishness. I was afraid to tell people where I had taken my son, afraid to admit that I had been so stupid. Slowly, as my leg healed, I came to accept what happened to us as almost normal, and to take solace in our response. I’m not proud of the event, but I’m proud of what was left. We got out together, and we were smiling. I didn’t break my bones, I didn’t hurt my son. And I didn’t break our love of the great outdoors.

Falling is the original teacher, and this fall changed me. These days I feel more powerful and more vulnerable than before, although in a way I’ve always known this. Truly, we are so good at hiding things from ourselves. Our purpose and our power, our strengths and our failings. Out there on the mountain, I met up with ground truth (and hard). It hurt, but I heard. I left some blood on the rock, and some pretense also. This shell may grow back, but for now I’m closer to myself than I was before. I’m closer to ground truth.

Ryan talks about our fall every day. His verdict is that Daddy took a step that was too big, and then Peter came to help. My stitches are finally out, and we just went on our first hike together again, on the good old Sunshine Coast Trail. He was bugging me for so long, when would my knee be ready, when could we go for a big hike, and would I fall down again. As it happened, I did slip on some moss, and he scolded me very sternly to be careful. Then he nodded off to sleep, trusting me to do my best. His soft breath sounded in my ear, and I walked forward, leg still a bit stiff but working well. Forward with careful, humble courage. On towards whatever lies ahead.

Ryan at Lois Lakeshore
Back on the trail again.





photo by flickr user tobyjm

The time has come to say farewell, my dearest blue
My sweetie fly
I’ve raised you from infancy these past few days,
Unwitting though I may have been
On table scraps you grew strong and healthy, shiny and new
Those meals, countless now, sticky apricots and pears, a sip of cider here and there,
Just a nibble, just a taste of waste
Between the kitchen and the hall you flew, o blue, turning our heads and our hearts, round and round at the sound
Bzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz
And around and around.
But no more shall you alight on my compost pail
Rubbing your hands with ill-concealed glee
You tiny hipster, you enigmatic connoisseur
With your five-star reviews and your fairy wings
Puking on things just to eat them
All organic, or so you say
Are you a part of this great cycle? Why not you the poster boy for pollination, why not you the keeper of our plantations;
When everyone laments the bees, do their words not leave a sting?

But no more, not here, not now.

No longer will you dance across the glass, your head a soft staccato beat, trying in vain to break yourself free
from this, your sweet nightmare of Euclidean geometry

No more will you goad the cat into awkward gymnastics beneath your wayward spastic flight

My friend, my guest, my failing grade:

The window stands open, and I behind with paper raised in grim salute, waving you on with the force of a thousand hurricanes
The time has come to say farewell, my dearest blue
Our destinies no longer quite entwined
For I am only human, and you? Well:
The window stands open, and you must fly.


ABBA ADDRESSES UNITED NATIONS IN OFFBEAT BID FOR STATEHOOD

UNITED NATIONS — Pop superstars ABBA addressed the General Assembly today in what officials are calling “a bizarre scheduling error”.

The floor was packed with delegates waiting to hear from Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas, who was widely expected to make his historic bid for statehood.

When the house lights dimmed and the first notes of “Knowing Me, Knowing You” began to play, consternation and surprise filled the chamber.

“We expected Abbas, but instead we got ABBA” Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said shortly after the concert. “A simple mistake was made. I appeal for calm”.

Mr. Ban also questioned how ABBA was even a band. “Did they not break up in 1983, after a falling out with their manager?”

The greying rockstars reprised several of their greatest hits, including “The Winner Takes it all”, in apparent reference to Israel’s current land claims.

With surprise on their side, the band used the opportunity to press for Palestinian rights.

“If you change your mind, they’re the first in line / Honey they’re not free / Take a chance on P / If you need peace, let them know, gonna be around / They’ve got no place to go, and they’re feeling down.”

Nodding vigorously, many delegates were moved to applaud and cheer as they had seldom done before.

In a scene reminiscent of an earlier speech by Iran, the entire contingent of European Union delegates stood up as one, walked away from their desks, and formed a conga line, careening joyfully down the aisle.

Speaking shortly after the program, US President Barack Obama indicated his cautious support. “Friends, disco has been a force of oppression and terror for many decades. Let’s not kid ourselves. But frankly, even disco is better than letting Abbas humiliate us on the world stage. So I say thank you for the music — for giving it to me.”

Once upon a time, on the shores of the pacific ocean, there was a magical kingdom called Powell. This kingdom was separated from the outside world by a great sorcery called BC Ferries, leaving the citizens free to live in peace and comfort.

But all was not well. The great arena, where the citizens liked to gather and mingle, had grown old and decrepit. For a time the town wardens sought to repair the structure, but in the end it was no use. With deep sorrow, they ordered it levelled by battering rams.

When those old walls came down, the whole kingdom turned out to see. That building had been like a beating heart in the community, built by the people for the people. Now there was a nothingness, a great blank spot in the fabric of the kingdom. The beach was still there, and it was beautiful, but the only structure that remained open was a hamburger stand.

“Fear not!” cried the wardens. “We have the power to build anew on this wonderful site. Only tell us what you would like to build, as we already have a new arena.”

Then all of the citizens began to speak at once.

“How about we build a BIGGER hamburger stand?”

“What about a gated community for our valued rich people?”

“Can we please make it into a beautiful parking lot?”

“Let’s build an incinerator — I just love incinerating things!”

The town wardens looked at each other with some dismay, as these ideas did not fit the nature of the site. They were beginning to think that they should just leave well enough alone, when a small boy spoke up.

“Pardon me, sirs,” the boy said, “but couldn’t we move our library there?”

Some of the citizens were surprised. “What?! We have a library?”

“Oh yes,” said the boy. “We have a lovely little library in the catacombs below the town warden’s office. But they only have room for a few books, and the space is rather old and crummy. Kingdoms half our size have much better libraries.”

(the present library was cozy)

“Very well,” said the wardens, “we acknowledge that the library in our catacombs is too small for a kingdom such as ours. And library is a true public space, a building for the people. We will build this library.”

And so the troubles began.

By ancient custom, any decision made by the town wardens was immediately opposed. Not by everyone, mind you, but by enough people that the wardens should never feel at ease. This duty was passed from generation to generation, in a grim and serious order known only as the Naysayers. One of them stepped forward now.

“Stop at once!” she cried. “Our citizens do not have the gold you require to build this useless edifice to knowledge. The existing library is fine! Catacombs are a lovely place to keep books. And in fact, no one reads books any more. They all just read blogs on the Internet.”

One of the wardens turned to address her. “Madam, we are not asking for any of your gold today. Let us prepare a plan for the building, with all costs accounted for. There are grants and other treasures we may draw on. When we know how much gold is needed, only then can we ask for your approval.”

“Never!” cried another voice. “One cent would be too much. The craft mill may close, or a horrible plague may wipe out all our labourers. The future is bleak! We cannot afford to pay for trifles such as this, no matter how cheap.”

Now another lady stepped forward, and the crowd parted around her, for all could see from the square of her shoulders that she was a Librarian.

“This library is worth it! Knowledge is a commodity more precious than gold. It is with books that we became a wise and thoughtful people. And a library can be more than a bookshelf, don’t you see? It can restore this old site to the glory and wonder it once knew. There will be rooms for meeting and gathering, there will be fantastic art adorning the walls. Families and friends will gather inside, and the eager voices of children will ring through these walls once more — quietly, I hope.”

The Naysayers were horrified. “You cannot steal this beach from us!” one of them shouted. “How dare you replace a beach with a bloody book-bin!”

“We’re not,” said the Librarian. “The library isn’t going on the beach. In fact, it will use less than a quarter of this upper lot. The trails and forests will stay. You may find this hard to believe,” she continued sweetly, “but libraries take up less space than great arenas.”

Shouts of approval followed her remarks, mixed with a grim hissing from the Naysayers.

One of the wardens spoke up. “There is a simple way to solve this,” she said. Let us send horsemen throughout the land, and ask everyone to choose their preferred site. Whichever site has the most votes…”

“Great idea!” cried the Naysayers. “We will campaign against this site, and other Naysayers can campaign against the other sites!”

“Other sites?” asked the Librarian. She was looking kind of sad.

“Oh yes, like the site near the Sheriff’s keep, by the old woods. All those woods will have to come down to make room, so we expect a lot of angry Naysayers. Or the unsuitable site inside a furniture store. Libraries have furniture, so it makes sense to some people. Building won’t work, of course. Makes for some great arguments!”

“Not only that,” said another smiling Naysayer, “but I’ll gladly disagree with any site anywhere, because books are evil.”

“Not evil,” said another one, “but gay.”

“Not gay,” said another one, “but useless to read when you could just watch the movie.”

“Not really,” said the first Naysayer, “but since I’m rich I don’t need to borrow things. And public spaces give me the creeps.”

“There are two good public spaces,” said an older Naysayer. “Public houses and public rest rooms. Can’t have one without the other, really.”

And a little voice shouted…

“STOP!!!”

It was the young boy. While everyone was talking, he had built a small tower out of their soap boxes. He was balanced there now, lit from behind by the last rays of a beautiful sunset. They squinted up at him.

“Can’t you see that this arguing gets us nowhere? Bickering won’t help. Surveys won’t help. NOTHING will help until you all stop being so negative!”

This was such a daring proclamation that for a moment, no one said anything. The boy rushed ahead.

“Powell is a great place, an awesome place. We all care for it and love it very much. But our kingdom has grown old and our love has turned to fear. Now we fight against anything that might change.

“We fight about power lines, sewage plants, smart meters, water pipes, running tracks, dog parks, bridges, trails, rehab centres, the arts, the mill, burn piles, and the colour of our neighbour’s house. We want things to stay the same. Well I’m sorry –” (here the soapboxes swayed dangerously, and the crowd gasped) “I’m sorry, but I don’t remember how it used to be. I just know that things could be better. I think all of us should trust each other a little more. I think all of us should admit that our wardens are working night and day on our behalf, and deserve a little respect. I think we should not be afraid to grow, as a community.

“It’s fine to argue about things, but at some point we have to stop arguing and do something. Let’s be positive this time. I know it’s hard, but just… try.”

A silence followed this speech, broken only by creaking of the soapboxes and the cry of the gulls wheeling far overhead.

A warden cleared his throat. “You speak pretty smart for a little guy. Are you sure you’re not reading from a script, maybe some sort of blog?”

“No sir,” said the boy. “Blogs rot your brain, pretty much. I got my smarts honestly, one book at a time. From my public library.”

At this, a sort of cheer went up from the crowd. The wardens looked out, over the sea of smiling, frowning faces. They looked back at the empty site, sitting there like paper waiting for an author’s pen. And in that moment, they decided…

TO BE CONTINUED.

Will Powell get its new library, or is it all a hopeless fairy tale? Will we move forward and build something great, or will this process dragon and on forever? Find out next time, or the time after next. Or the time immediately following that time. Maybe.

Or, if you’d like to Choose Your Own Adventure, you can help shape this narrative now. Email your mayor, council, and newspaper with your thoughts. Tell your friends, tell your kids. Once in a while, dreams can come true.

One of my clearest memories of visiting my Grandfather is from about 17 years ago, on a beach near his Nanaimo home.  While the adults conversed above, I took my kid brother (I’m guessing he’d be about 5, which makes me 14) for a seaside adventure.  Soon we were running along a narrow strip of intertidal shore, between the grey sea and the cliffs.   Our dash ended in a shallow bay, where the sea reached right to the face of the rock, cutting us off ahead.  I glanced up at the cliffs.  The tide had filled a wide ditch in front of the wall, a through these waters lay a great bleached trunk, an old growth log cast loose from the wilds of Vancouver Island.  One end was lodged on the sand in front of me, and like an arrow it pointed across that trough, directly at the cliffs.  My heart began to pound, and I stepped to the log.

“What are you doing?” asked my awesome companion.

“Seeing if I can climb this,” I replied.  Grandpa used to climb things, big things.  Mountains and glaciers.  Harrowing adventure.  The log ended about two feet from the cliff.  I would have to jump over the gap and grab the rock.  If I failed, I’d fall and be drenched — in front of my little brother.

“Do you think I can make it?”

“Yeah.”

I ran lightly along the log.  I couldn’t tarry long on the far side, else it might roll.  The gap was a bit larger than I thought, but I jumped all right.  One foot missed, the other landed and both hands grabbed hold.  The rock was warm in the summer sun, a strange feeling of life-that-is-not-life that has never left me.  Robin cheered and jumped up and down, which was very encouraging.  His voice sounded thin against the waves.  I looked up… waaaaay up… and could see flowers looking down at me from the top of the cliff, some 40 feet away.  The going appeared to be steep.  Perhaps this wasn’t a wise idea.  Turning to the log, I saw that there was no way back.  I’d need my running start to cross that gap again.

“Go back around,” I called to my brother.  I was very responsible and didn’t want to see him swept out to sea.  Actually, all kidding aside, I had enjoyed a rapport with Robin ever since he could walk.  I knew what I could ask of him, and what he could be counted on to do.  I have relied on this trust more than I probably should have, I know.  It’s a brother thing.

Little Robin toddled out of sight, and I began to climb.  The cliff walls were a bit sandy, which added an element of danger but also made for many footholds, pockmarks in the weathered surface.  I only slipped once, it wasn’t my scariest climb.  My hands slowly turned black from the rock dust.  After a while I pulled myself over the lip and onto a grassy clearing.  Grown-up voices sounded nearby, and I hurried up.  My parents and grandparents where there. Robin burst from a side trail at the same moment, full of dignity from his solo quest.  We were united above the sea.

“Grandpa, I climbed them!  I climbed those cliffs!” I wasn’t interested in telling anyone else.  Here was the man, the legend, the Climbing Grandpa.  I believe I interrupted him in mid-sentence.  He looked at me and my blackened hands, bits of grass clinging to my clothes, one knee scuffed where it met with unforgiving rock.  There was an unmistakable twinkle in his eye.

“You did…?  Good for you!”

And then he drew me aside.  “See how dirty your hands are?”  Uh oh. Was the Climbing Grandpa a clean freak, like some of my other relatives?

“Well, uh, yes…”

“That’s from coal dust!  The last mine closed 40 years ago, but the dust around here still runs black.  Isn’t that something?”

And that’s how Grandpa was.  Encouragement and teaching, delivered with a smile.  I didn’t see him often, but every time I did there was something important there, something that cheered me on.  My mom has a picture of me with Grandpa and his wife Rene, back when I was younger than memory.  They flank me on our crazy old red couch.  I’m smiling like I won the lottery, like I’m sitting among heros.  And in a way I am.

My Grandfather passed away on January 22, at the age of 90.  Sitting here typing this, I wonder more than ever if I’m just a new version of him.  Sure, Grandpa Gordon never quite mastered computers, just as I never learned to ride the rails like a crazy hobo.  I’m sure we both wished we did.  Like me he loved mountain climbing, easily naming summits on every horizon.  What I feel when I take each rise, when I look out at the wide world around me, I know he felt. His numerous slides bear witness to exceptional photography skills, an obsession I share.  His empathy for individuals, and his lifelong desire to teach — both are borne in my work, where I use computers not just for the sake of mastering the logic, but to help people understand.

Maybe I am Grandpa Gordon 3.0.  So much of what made him that kind of man is in my blood.  Of course, I know my story is different, and that the differences have his approval.  Thus inspired, we carry on.

“Good for you!”

That was my Grandpa.

The last time I heard of solar sails, they were in an Arthur C. Clarke novel.

Here on earth, we now have different possibilities:

Late last month, the Australian Solar Sailor company announced they’d signed a deal with China’s biggest shipping line, COSCO, to fit some of their jumbo jet sized solar-powered sails to a tanker and bulk carrier. The 30 metre long sails, festooned in photovoltaic panels are expected to catch enough wind to reduce fuel costs by between 20% and 40%, whilst those PV cells will provide the ships with 5% of their electricity. A computer automatically angles the sails for maximum wind and solar efficiency, and if all goes to plan the sails will have recovered their initial cost within four years.

Tip o’ the organic hat to TreeHugger.  Now if only we could get above that tiny 5%…

I remember listening to silence on the radio, unaccustomed, eerie silence, while my mother stood nearby and the rain fell softly against the glass. A long time before, many people had died at war.  I listened through the static, trying to picture myself there, trying to understand a sacrifice we all pay homage to.

I didn’t grow up a pacifist, and I didn’t grow up a patriot.  Like many Canadians, my default war heros are medics, peacekeepers, negotiators.  You know, those guys who negotiate within an established framework and build multilateral consensus.  Us Canadians really like multilateral consensus.  But is that what our countrymen died for, on the beaches of Normandy?

I’ve been to Juno Beach.  I watched little kids swim in the light blue waters where a thousand Canadians died, most of them young men with earnest smiles and uncertain eyes. I know this will sound controversial, but it’s a blog so I’ll just forge ahead: I don’t like WWII Germany.  Those guys really shouldn’t have been building bunkers above those sand cliffs, really shouldn’t have been invading, slaughtering, and whatnot.  I’m proud of the Canadians who fought and died on that day. If they had failed, if we all had failed on different fronts, we would be remembering things very differently.  I haven’t been to many battlegrounds, so when I remember our fallen troops I remember sunny Juno, were we fought against evil.

Or did we?

Throughout our history, did brave men and women really fall “against evil”, and while “defending our freedoms”, or did they fall because they were violently killed by other brave men and women defending a different set of freedoms or at least following a different set of orders?  Probably yes.

Did the lessons of the World Wars lead the way for a wiser Canada, a Canada who will never fight except in the cause of peace?  Apparently no.

Remembrance day commemorates our losses against each other, our sacrifices against violence, discrimination, and organized hatred.   That’s what I wear the poppy for.  Not for glory, or democracy, or national defence (and I’m looking at you PMSH).  I wear the poppy to remember that loss, as I believe all war is, in the end.

Here’s to peace, eh?

There were about 50 000 sites worldwide on the day I made my first homepage.

The year was 1995, and I wasn’t some grubby kid sitting in his parents’ basement.  No sir, my room was on the second floor.  Netscape 1 had just hit the scene, and the Internet was about to explode.  So was my computer – every few hours I had to restart as it ran out of memory.  The future was coming, and out there in the wilderness I could sense a change.

Now it’s 2008.  I’m married.  I have a house.  I own a business.  181 million websites are out there.

There’s been a few changes.  I think it’s time to try something new.