Monday, 10 May 2021

Double Review: "Destination Hikes" and "Backpacking" in SW BC.

Within the same month, 2 highly anticipated local hiking guidebooks are being released by the same publisher:

Destination Hikes in and Around Southwestern British Columbia by Stephen Hui
AND 
Backpacking in Southwestern British Columbia by Taryn Eyton

Along with Hui's earlier "105 Hikes", these books could almost be seen as a series and combined, some of the latest entries into the local guidebook market (Vancouver and beyond) for their areas. As a guidebook collector, and self-proclaimed book bagger I aim to help you decide if these books are worthy of your hiking dollars.

Before proceeding (if not a spoiler alert), for full disclosure I know Stephen Hui and the mapping specialist for both of his books and have met Eyton at least once. In other words, this "review" could be seen as biased but if I didn't feel these books were a great addition to anyone's collection, I'd likely choose not to write anything at all.  That said,... if I think there is room for improvement somewhere, or something that might not appeal to others, I'll try to qualify that and say it.

My Background:
I own a sizable library of local outdoor recreation guidebooks spanning form the early 70s to... today.  These books cover mostly BC and Washington, and beyond that, only select US based hiking areas in the Southwest.  Although I'm "semi-retired" from going at it aggressively, I've completely "book bagged" a handful of these and have found it a great way to ensure I see a nice variety of locations for my precious hiking hours.
I also subscribe to many of the more common online resource providers as part of my toolkit for seeking GPS tracks and recent conditions (Livetrails, All Trails, Viewranger and more).
In 2002 I started Wanderung.ca with my friends and the organization has propelled several thousand group adventures over the last 2 decades.

Review: Backpacking in Southwestern British Columbia by Taryn Eyton

I was really pleased to hear about this book coming out because most recent SW BC guidebooks go very light on the camping specific details. Almost all current publications assume you can make an assault on a summit and return in one day and would figure out the rest yourself should you want to stay the night.  The fact is, the greatest adventures I've experienced tend to have involved a 2nd day and a ton of the unknown details for those trips emerged from the camping logistics (water, regulations, etc.).  Spending downtime with your friends, looking at the stars, and cooking a meal together is really superior to just hiking and it is about time someone assembled this book.

My first impression of this book is that the formatting looks very, very similar to Hui's original 105 Hikes and latest book. Well,.. there is a reason for that, it is the same publisher and the same design team and frankly, .. I like that. Hui's book had a great aesthetic and logic for a functional guide, plus I don't want to relearn my way around.  It has all of the standard disclaimers and intro chapters but I think Eyton's is a bit shorter but more informative than most (please everyone,.. read her Leave No Trace section). Formatting may seem like a boring thing to look at but for guidebooks,.. it matters (just ask anyone about Dawn Hanna's elevation profiles instead of maps...).

That all being the case, the other Greystone books aren't identical in layout and the differences are important and well chosen on Eyton's part. In fact, between Eyton and Hui, I think the formatting is approaching "perfection" for my tastes but here are the formatting "innovations" I've found so far I think really add to Backpacking:

The trip planner: How many times have I wished for a km by km breakdown of the trail I'm hiking (junctions, landmarks etc.) instead of sifting through paragraphs of text and sometimes even writing my own summary? A lot. This book has them.  Hallelujah.

Itemized Key Details: Both in the individual trail sections and the handy summary table, Eyton lets you know if a given location has fees, dog leash regulations, number of camping pads or cabin bunks, and more. More importantly, they are separated out form the other text.  This is huge!  I don't think any guide book in my collection does as good a job as this one in this regard. 
Will dog owners and the new instagrammers heed these warnings? Fuck no! But as a rule follower I like to know what is deemed ok in a sensitive area so I can at least feel smug and superior as I try to sleep in my tent listening to someone else's portable stereos and crackling brush fire.

Best months: Ooohhh! Controversial!!  Safety nuts love to debate this one.  Of course we should all look at the conditions whenever we plan to go somewhere but the author had the guts to go 20 years back and include "optimal months".  I think this is important.  Yes snow might never recede somewhere in a given year but help people narrow it down at least.  Better yet, maybe really help out the novices that often ping me about alpine destinations once they have experienced an unseasonably warm March day at sea level.  As a book bagger, I need some rough approximation to help me plan a year of trips and Eyton does this (thanks for having the guts!).

If I had to pick one knock against this book, I'd have to look hard, but it might be that the selection of trips. Take a random group of seasoned Vancouver backpackers that has been at it for a while and ask them to list the 40 most common destinations,.. and you'd have a very high correlation with the TOC of this book.  For me, 8 of 40 I had not already done and only 2 of them I'd not at least researched (or heard of).

Although I think I was selfishly hoping for more fresh discoveries... there is a reason for that. Eyton made what I assume had to be a hard choice,.. on top of an ethical one to craft this selection.  She very clearly in the first pages of her book defines why she has selected certain hikes over others. I won't repeat the whole list (you need to buy the book for that!), but I'll highlight the ones I'm referring to above:

4X4 not required: For those that know hiking in BC, you will know how limiting this might be. This is the hard choice I refer to above. With only space for 40 trips, it would be shame to have people buy the book and be able to hike only 30... Eyton had to draw a line and chose no need for anything beyond 2WD access (or at worst combined with extra doable hiking distance that those blessed with clearance could shorten by driving).

Supported by Land Management: By this she is saying that unless a government agency will ensure the habitat is protected she is not going to direct people to it. This usually means tent pads and toilets (though not always).  That is a tough and limiting choice. Eyton is a trained educator in Leave No Trace adventuring and knowing that, this tough choice to exclude some real eye poppers and smells of one thing: integrity. I can get behind that. I often wonder if these books are part of the problem with overrun trails and personally have some guilt along those lines for my part in propelling group travel in the region through Wanderung. I don't think that written the way it is, this book does anything but make the right choices in that regard and attempt to educate those that simply may not be aware.

Lastly, on this topic, I need to remember that not since Brian Gover's BC Car-Free or perhaps some of the Copeland's books has anyone really given camping specific details much lip service.  In other words, of course this book should be rolling out the classics, it is the most current and most foundational resource out there (now) on this topic locally. Do you know anyone with a thoroughly researched recent account of the details you need to hike the whole Howe Sound Crest Trail? I don't.

I think the way to think about this book is that if you are a Vancouverite into backpacking or getting into it,.. it might be a one stop shop for your regional "rite of passage" trips and if you complete all of them... I'm hoping Eyton has volume 2 lined up.

Review: Destination Hikes in and Around Southwestern British Columbia by Stephen Hui

The author may not appreciate my first comment here but: though Destination Hikes is not officially a follow-up to 105 Hikes,.. it sort of is.

Not unlike bonus levels in a favourite video game, Hui's latest release has a very familiar format, and when one of the old 103 Hikes previous edition classics appears such as Diez Vistas or The Sisters (Lions),.. it is hard to deny that this book feels like a sequel.  But,.. I loved Star Wars and that doesn't mean Empire wasn't also awesome (my review of 105 Hikes here).

I'm going to start by just saying if you liked the original, or hiking around here in general.. buy it.  There are differences which I'll outline below but nothing that should sway a buying choice.

Formatting: 
105 Hikes brought many improvements over the earlier Macaree and Bryceland editions and they continue here:

  • advances in affordable colourized printing
  • land acknowledgements and forewords by BC's first people
  • handy tables and checklists
  • more...
There are key differences and I think they all make sense.  For starters, the purpose of this work is less about continuing the tradition set by the Macarees for hikes of a certain range of difficulty and length.  I'm pretty certain Hui took some heat for slipping in some sub-5 hour hikes of minimal stats in 105 from the orthodox BCMC hardcores.  Destinations claims to focus on payoffs, not kms, for each trail, which breaks from the tradition of killing yourself to climb 8 hours of mud to only see a grown over view that you could beat by biking up Little Mountain.

Also being free of the shackles of the 103 Hikes lineage allowed Hui to write - gasp, more than 2 pages per hike! Included in that are what in my opinion are much better (and larger) photos than what surfaced in 105 Hikes. I guess the extra 50 hikes sops up some space!

Two edition "innovations" that must be noted are the Feature Icons and the Stops of Interest boxes:

Feature icons summarize at the top of the title page of the hike what you stand to see by doing this hike. Colourfully coded circles with google maps style icons will indicate "Big tree", "Waterfalls", "Coastal views", "Wildflowers" and more.  The only way to improve on that is a magical book that can dynamically tell you when the bugs are hitting!  These items are what I call the "gravy" for your sweat and blisters and it also can feed into planning.  Nothing is worse that executing a hike and not being aware that it is known for wildflowers or a waterfall and timing that wrong as you buddy shows some amazing photo 3 weeks later.

Stops of Interest really is where Destinations becomes about,.. destinations. As a prolific trip organizer in my day I always wanted to make sure we made a full day of it wherever we went.  Hell, this is our leisure time so I don't want to drive to Chilliwack and deadhead it back - we were travelling as much as we were hiking.  A great pub or pull-over viewpoint was always welcome and Stephen Hui has injected yellow boxes into every destination's section to indicate exactly those kinds of sites for the area you have decided to adventure.  Othello Tunnels, Alexandra Bridge, or a plethora of museums and cultural centres.  No pubs or bakeries, but no one is perfect.

This book is a great addition to your library and will fill hours as you sit inside on a rainy day and dream out your upcoming adventures.

Conclusion

Something I've not addressed here is the utility of hiking books,.. at all. There are great electronic resources out there, especially where mapping is concerned so has the guidebook gone the way of the dodo?  I don't think so. 

Online content is more accessible than ever and expanding almost as rapidly as,.. crappy and irresponsible writers.  I've read online reports with: illegal acts, environmentally destructive acts, and all variety of trail information that is incorrect.  Search and Rescue calls these days almost regularly say "the person was following bad instructions on their cell phone". 

Between Steve Chapman's verified maps and the thorough and recent research done by these authors,.. I think you are in better hands with books like these as a base than someone that jotted down their best memory of the trail after trail running it. With books you can also calibrate your fitness level based on previous usages,.. you have no idea what you are in for with online content (a braggart trail runner, or someone dragging along a child...?).

Clearly, I've enjoyed what I've seen in these books.  I also just enjoy thinking of my friends and acquaintances that are newer to hiking and how both books give them well thought out options where to go with some context to go there safely and responsibly.

I urge people to not do what I normally do and skip the intro sections... they are worthy of your time.  Now more than ever it is evident that new hikers are needing a north star regarding caring for these amazing trails we have and these books could serve to raise that awareness.

Buy them.  Buy them both. And don't rule out an e-book version which can be good for printing and especially if you are backpacking, convenient to carry along with your novels while your paper copy sits nice and dry at home to be lovingly flipped through in the off-season.

Tuesday, 12 January 2021

My 2020 in Review

Every year I like to take that rainy stretch near New Year's to look back at what we got up to, set some goals, and see if we delivered on our intentions from the previous year.   I do this mostly for myself and sometimes re-read earlier years. I also like to share it with friends and family that might be interested walking down a recent "memory lane".


The way I worded it in 2017: "It is both a time to remember "oh ya! we did that THIS year?", and also a means to inspire ourselves to do more of the things we like, and better, and not become complacent. It also, in some years like this one, is a reminder of how short life can be and a chance to honour the passing of important people or institutions."

I'm not sure why but I didn't do this in 2019 (and I wish I did). I do have a running record of our activities and it seemed like a "normal" year, with no loss of family or friend, manageable health, and an increased participation in some little hobby interests (eg. participating as a citizen in many phases of the Granville Street bridge public consultation).

2020 Overview

I always try to do the "if x was the year of travel/graduation/new job, 2020 was the year of y".  There is just no ways around it, it was the year of COVID-19.  It changed how we worked, it cramped our main hobbies and it took the life of at least one loved one.

That said, a few minor things went our way.  We decided to take an early vacation to Nevada, California and Utah right before COVID kicked into gear, so ended up not feeling as deprived of adventure as many. However, even before that, in January we had several losses on the friend and family side.

The rest of the year was like a roller-coaster as it was for everyone else and we lost more family and friends as we tried to just get through the year injecting as much local adventure in where we could and keeping our own stress levels in check.  We really needed to change our patterns but it was a very anti-social year, and in many ways we achieved new levels of inactivity and boredom. Trump will not be talked about in the sections below btw.  So here goes.

My select chronological set of cell phone pics from the year.

Friends and Family

I'm going launch right into this one as it was mostly not a positive.  Like everyone, we saw far too little of our friends and families. We definitely took liberties when the health officer allowed us to lower our guard but on so many levels this was the opposite direction for what we wanted as we feel negligent typically in this area in "normal" years. 

In early January, my aunt Jean passed away (my mother's sister). This was early enough that a proper service was held which I'm very thankful for (especially for my uncle Lorne and my cousins).  She was a very nice woman, and someone I only have fond memories of, many through the words of my own mom.  

Shortly after that, a junior co-worker of mine from a previous job of mine decided to take his own life. This was someone I bonded with during my time at that job and thought about often afterwards (before and after he died).  I still don't quite know why, but of the many deaths I'll associate with 2020, this one may have hit me hardest. His death occurred right as the fear and confusion around COVID started kicking in. A celebration of life would have happened if just a week or so earlier but never did occur. This was just the first of many such events that never happened this year for our family and I feel really complicates closure. 

In March, Laura's father (Dick Langs) passed away unexpectedly.  The effects of not being able to be with her mother or have a formal event are still unfolding. 
During one of the low alert periods we did drive to Nelson and joined the bubble of her sister's family but we were all so desperate to just enjoy that, we didn't unpack Dick's passing much and perhaps that was the right thing at that time.

Laura's father was someone I did not get to know as much as I would have liked, but I feel fortunate to have had as a father-in-law. I never felt judged by this super kind man (which seems like a thing that happens to other men).  I feel there were common interests that we never got to discuss due to limited time. There is a lesson in there somewhere. An eye-opener for me was how strong my wife is as I watched her cope with the waves of emotions.  Her journey with this is not over but I am amazed at the grace with which she handles it and am pleased she now "Zooms" with her mom almost daily which is a positive new thing that came of all of this.  My wife never met my mother, so it not wasted on me that the few meetings I had with her dad are precious.

My aunt Liesbeth (my dad's sister) passed away in May. She had health challenges but it still was a rapid chain of events from what I understand. She also was a gentle soul and being younger than my dad, added to a bit of selfish anxiety for me regarding him. Being in Ontario and someone that didn't travel much, we didn't know her well, but she always felt like family as soon as we were in the same room.  I don't know how my dad is dealing with it but I should probably ask.  The thing is just that these days we always try to share positives to keep each other buoyant and it just feels weird to bring it up.

Right under the wire of 2020 ending a very distant acquaintance now, but someone part of my once tight BCIT class and still in my work network, passed. He was young, possibly depressed, and for some reason it added to the feeling this was just a shit year for certain things. It was like the other bookend to how 2020 started.

Although it was kind of spotty, we did manage to get out for some trips with friends to the mountains or an alfresco meal between lockdowns, but it was just way too little and I miss this social pillar of our lives.

Needless to say - when possible, we aim to see more of our family and friends.  I feel generally more distant to all of them and I do not want that stretch of time to pass where it is even harder to reconnect.  This is a priority for 2021.

Travel

I need something light,...let's talk about what we did this year that aligns with our usual objectives.  Travel is one of our biggest shared hobbies and we love planning, executing, and remembering it. 

We could not have timed our "biggest international" trip better.  COVID was being talked about when we were in Vegas, but not before.  We sort of categorize trips as either big ones (Europe, Asia etc.) or small ones which would even include Hawaii maybe and certainly week long max US city trips like Chicago,.. or maybe a longer BC roadtrips.  Las Vegas turned out to not just be our biggest trip of the year,.. but it behaved like one.

Honestly, I though it was going to be a throw away. Laura had never seen Vegas and it seemed time, but I hate the place... Somehow it was an amazing trip.  We did the highlights of Vegas cheeze, but the extended trips from the hub were phenomenal and some 'sites of a lifetime'  for sure. I am so grateful that we fit this one in when we did (photos).  I love desert and think that people that go to Vegas and don't got further afield are nuts! This trip included:
  • The Strip highlights: Neon museum, Fat Elvis 
  • Death Valley National Park
  • Mojave Nation Preserve
  • Zion National Park
  • Valley of Fire
  • Beatles Cirque du Soleil
  • A random brunch with Laura's friend Rob!
From there, the year became what I think it did for many of us in BC (my co-workers in particular maximized this),.. a cat and mouse game of how to responsibly get out into BC when the authorities and communities were open to it. 

Even a basic car camping trip seemed like a precious treat, especially with the hoards flooding into the areas that WE tend to frequent historically in the summer (and the weird restrictions and booking systems that came along with COVID). Here is where we managed to get to:
  • Lac le Jeune - car camping
  • Manning Park - car camping and hiking
  • Whistler - with our friends Peter and Olivia when restrictions relaxed (with WAY too many other peple up there that simply did not give a shit)
  • Gibsons - just checking it out and keeping to ourselves
  • Nelson - to visit family and I did a longish rail trail ride (my only bike trip of the year!)

We only fit in one standalone backpacking trip (with Brenda, Andy, and Maria) and I'd say that was a situation of quality over quantity.  No bike trips,... which are often my faves so if there is a way in 2021 to safely do that,.. that will be a priority.


The other big trip was with Wendie and Pete to Yoho and Glacier National Parks including an overnight backpack trip on the Iceline trail. I had only ever been through that area on tour with my band in the 90s and wow was it an amazing place as was the roadtrip and cabin in Golden we stayed in.


Day Trips

More than ever, day trips (after work or weekends) played a big role in our mental well-being and maybe we "improved the system" a bit so I've broken that out as a separate thing. 

Without commuting to work as much we needed exercise so reasoned out that if we were working from home (and the same place) we can get on the road faster AFTER work (we also dramatically increased daily walking from and around our place).

This year we did far less of the 5+ hour hikes that usually shape our year and more of the short and local hikes including SFU based ones and some easy access North Shore hikes.  It was fun to re-aquaint ourselves with those and safer since we could not go in bigger numbers with people outside of our bubble.  We did tons, (like 2 a week at one point).

We also bought a proper bike rack so could drive further out for some new areas like Pitt Meadows and areas of Surrey for some exploring by bike.  These were great additions and something we want to do more of.

In both cases, we also started to get smarter about packing food which kicked off a renaissance of al fresco eating for us. This was one of the great take-aways of 2020 where we now bring dry padded seats with us everywhere (and a food kit), and enjoy the great outdoors more than ever for a nice lunch or dinner.

Work

It is difficult to know where our work lives were going before COVID forced a right turn in everything.  There is no doubt that some of the content of what I did changed in part to the "how" we would work given provincial restrictions.  The business I work for serves the public so any growth trajectory was hit hard. We were able to stay open as the need for alternative transportation categorized us as a necessary service. However, this was not before we needed to conduct some temporary and permanent reductions unfortunately.

Like many companies this year, employment related government subsidies were well used by our management team (aka my manager) and thankfully my role was not impacted as a result.  The slowness of the world however was reflected in the type and content of work we got up to.  I volunteered to take a temporary 4 day work week at the tail end of the year. It just made sense and something I wanted to explore and understand about myself for down the road in life.

Laura's work also continued but unlike me, she remains working from home 100%. Because I'm 50% home now and for a month or so at the start was 100%,.. I'm amazed our arrangement worked so well right out of the gate.  With us both on calls etc. I would not have expected that.  Much of that is owed to Laura who seems content working in the "lesser workstation" in our apartment kitchen (IMO) which she can just pack up and hide away at the end of the day.

I never liked working from home in past jobs. I like the separation, but this exploration of that was not as bad as I thought. That said, whereas all the jokes are around what people do not get up to when unsupervised,.. I found myself initially doing longer days, taking no breaks and for the type of tasks I would chip away on,. it probably was not needed and went unnoticed. I'm a bit more ok with it than I used to be as a concept, but I don't feel the world is easily going back to non-permeable barriers between work and home time any time soon.  2021 feels quite up in the air on many fronts for me and my place of work so I don't want to speculate too much or bank too much on things going the way I want.

Our Extended World

A complete shake-up in the world triggered an array other noteworthy events and behaviours for us.

Wanderung (the hike club I started in 2002 and now semi-participate in as a board member), had to be paused. It is effectively a tool for connecting strangers in carpools.. so,.. kind of a no brainer, but after 18 years running, it did feel a bit odd knowing those group trips would not be happening and potentially keeping people safer. 


I had been getting more involved and interested in "urbanism" for lack of a better word so some of the changes to the city like pop-up-plazas, improvements in Stanley park for recreation, and opening up outdoor patios for restaurants were a welcome diversion and of great interest to me.  I've always felt that the city was not doing enough for people outside of their cars and hope some productive lessons have been learned and will lead to permanent changes.  I love street closures and more thoughtful use of public space.


The one project I was deeply following, blogging about, and attending engagement events for was the Granville Street Bridge improvement plan.  IMO, the opportunity is massive and it is the single most obvious impediment in fluid transportation across the city. In January of 2020 the unquestionable "best" option of several was chosen from the design choices. 2 months later, they had to de-scope it due to city budgets into phases (the second of which may never happen) and, to me, defeated the entire purpose of the key feature... removing gradient for unpowered vehicles (wheelchairs, pedestrians, bikes).  I'm still disappointed and feel this is short-sighted!  I think critics will have more legit ammo to knock the costs if it remains a half measure and we might see less positive sway for travel choices as a result.

We also endeavored to move the needle in the positive direction on our impact to the planet. We flew less, and drove less but I question if that was a really a deliberate choice that will stick. We carpooled less too... so presumably our friends were doing more trips with less people...

We bought more of our food from ethical sources such as Fisher Otto and a Sunnyside Farm CSA subscription. We also incorporated food  shopping into our daily routine which allowed making more smaller trips by foot, and closer by, and leaving the car at home. 


I can say we have gotten more into the concept of re-use and repair but that seems still like a tiny dent in the seemingly massive amount of garbage and recycling we seem to generate. The Soap Dispensary etc. is something we like to support but seems to have such a narrow scope and impact given our needs.  This needs more work in 2021 especially as I learn just how misleading current recycling systems in our area may be.


I was trying to reign in spending in general this year but not sure yet how that has gone as I did buy some big items that hopefully make 2021 less one of spending.

Health

For us personally, this was not a year of notable injuries or illness (thankfully). That said, it was not a healthy year. The extra time generated by COVID did not translate to more home exercise at all,.. it has led to us consuming more online content than in the history of earth.  Contact me if you want Netflix recommendations...

I gained weight, got further out of shape, and do not feel great. Though I don't know how it happened,  we started to dabble in far less meat consumption. We are not vegans, or even vegetarians, but in 2019,.. we were major carnivores. Honestly, I do not feel any health benefits, in fact kind of the opposite, but I do think it is balancing out our diet better for variety, moderation, and the environment.  This year we did do way better on a goal we never pull off and that is expanding our repertoire of recipes. Our food planning and cooking has made a move in the right direction.

I feel generally that this year wore on people mentally more than they are acknowledging (and statistical markers all show this).  I've observed that others are not as sensitive to this as I feel they should be and some, completely unaware that people around them are struggling as much as they are. It doesn't seem as if they don't care, but they are failing to see it. I felt like I was doing fine up to a point but have to admit, I feel pretty fragile and listless so do hope for a better next year though I'm not expecting the flip of a calendar to trigger any meaningful movement in the root cause of all of this (even with a potential pandemic vaccine on the way for end of 2021).


2021 

Who the hell knows. That might be the real sign of how 2020 went,.. it seems hard to plan ahead and settle on a path. 

I feel that the conservative way to view vaccines is to expect, at best, by 2022 we can be social and travel more. The job loss and economic toll on governments will be in full force by then though and I for one do not underestimate the magnitude of that at all. For that reason, I am cautious about making too many plans. To think otherwise feels too optimistic.

My goals this year will be a bit fortune-cookie-ish:
  • Keep flexible - roll with it, expect nothing but seize opportunity to mix things up
  • Stay healthy - every year I fail to really get in shape but I need to address a few issues including this golf ball in my shoulder.  I must turn around my exercise lethargy, especially for my joints.
  • Communication - with friends and family far more frequently.  We are getting isolated.  Games nights, etc.
  • Keep the following trends on the DOWNWARD trajectory:
    • driving (and fuel consumption)
    • spending on non-essential or non-experiential things
    • animal based product consumption
  • Keep the following on the UPWARD trajectory:
    • Batch cooking.
    • Alfresco dining (and having the supplies with us).
    • Daily walks.
  • Bike trips before all else (when safe and acceptable)
  • Understanding CoV waste processes and improve our impact



Wednesday, 11 November 2020

Being an Outdoorsy Vancouverite after MEC

 It would surprise me if anyone reading this does not know what is going on with MEC. If not, in short:

  • MEC, Canada's largest consumer co-operative is poised to be sold to an American private retail firm (correction HAS been sold)
  • Members are shocked and calling foul on the lack of process followed by the board that led to this and trying to mount a campaign to "save the co-op" in one way or the other (and if that is your thing check out Kevin Harding's posts on the SaveMEC Facebook group)
A good collection of articles has been assembled in the latest Wanderung newsletters by my friend Andy Gibb but here are 2 to get you started.

Like most of us, for me, this was something I did not want to see happen.  There is no doubt that for "self-propelled" active Vancouverites, MEC was THE major hub of events, gear, and even funding and a perceived ethical leader in the space.

Like some others though, I am not as surprised as some that something like this was possible and I'm not as hell bent on fighting it, so I decided to write this post to explore what it really means for me, my communities, and maybe my patterns of buying going forward.


MEC in my life 

MEC is woven into my life more than any other organization that I've not worked for directly and I think this is the case for many Vancouverites.

I became a member in 1984 when I was in scouts and needed to start assembling hiking gear. My parents took me to the Co-op so I would not freeze to death on a winter trip to Elfin Lakes and since then, there is probably no single store I've spent more of my money in than Mountain Equipment Co-op (I still call it that so suck it!).

For most of the 80s and 90s MEC was just a great store that presented great value and was aligned with my interests. Most of my casual clothes came from there as did all of my outdoor gear before I started to get more picky with brands etc., Christmas shopping lists for me, were mostly addressed here.

In the 90s my sister Wendie worked there in HR and at the time I could not think of a cooler place to consider working (and the discounts!). This was my first exposure to companies with a philosophy of promoting work/life balance and actually having a policy of unpaid time off to "go explore".  In 1999 I explored a BCIT IT workterm working at MEC but discovered their computing environment offered too little in experience due to being too outdated.  Both of these events exposed me to information that gave me early hints that "the Co-op" was not the most streamlined ship in the world as a business and that in some cases, true professionals chafed there.

In the early 2000s I had a personal re-birth regarding my interest in the outdoors and with my friends started the Vancouver based outdoor activity group: Wanderung.ca 
I funded Wanderung initially by buying used equipment at the "MEC Garage Sale" (a yearly event for me not unlike other major holidays), and flipped it for profit.  Later, MEC generously entered a very casual agreement with us (now a non-profit with a board) to provide all of the operating costs for close to a decade (for those unaware, this was the case for hundreds of small non-profits in the outdoor activity space). 

In 2014 I went 3 rounds of interviews and it looked like I was finally going to get to work at MEC. In a horribly handled HR blunder, I was even shown my future desk at the West 5th HQ and all but promised an offer was coming,.. when the job was then given to someone else.  That left a very bad taste in my mouth.

Fast forward to recent years where the funding for Wanderung was cut, and MEC itself has ventured into activities of less interest to me. Their own products became of less interest to discerning outdoor enthusiasts overall and the dividend cheques (remember those?!) were something you only ever heard about in connection with REI.  They rarely carried the product lines I cared for as time progressed.

Leading up to the big announcement, MEC was still a major shopping destination for me, but more for "supplies" like gas and freeze dried meals.  They still also offered the odd lowest price for something I was searching for (more on that shortly). I cannot deny their leadership in sustainability etc. but I no longer feel like a member of the cult of MEC as I once did.  In recent times, I tried but failed to boycott them for a variety of reasons, rumours of election funny business not withstanding.  For me, MEC was already a few notches past being something worth saving (if that is even possible).  I've signed the petition but chosen not to fight it any harder.

Alternatives to MEC

I have chosen not to focus on saving MEC.  There is zero doubt that the community centre and thought leadership aspect of the Co-op is a major national loss. Their support of nature, events, and sub-communities is unparalleled, and I doubt there will be anything to replace that.  That said,.. that ethical core was showing signs of erosion so perhaps it is time to seek values alignment elsewhere in the community to soften the blow of devastating losses along these line going forward.  At the very least, let's not put all of our emotional hopes and dreams about sustainable recreation etc. in one basket anymore.  Let's take what old MEC started and run with it.

The rest of this post is meant to be a potential life preserver for those in Vancouver that feel the loss of MEC is part of this sad global slide into environmental implosion and a slide further into faceless corporations having a hand in everything. All is not lost.

Community

If MEC is part of your fix for a sense of local community,.. I hear you. Club nights, gear sales, sponsored events...all of it has been an amazing asset to quality of life in Vancouver.  It does seem unlikely that a US Corporation will be be able to emulate that function from a genuine place. For that, this is what I'm suggesting:

MEC has incubated hundreds of local organizations from hike clubs like Wanderung (which probably can really pay for itself) to subsidizing programs providing outdoor leadership to marginalized women in the DTES.

If you are reeling because eventually you might not be able join an MEC organized paddleboard event,.. stop going to directly to MEC for these things,.. look to those grassroots organizations directly,.. or better yet.. start your own.  Did MEC not teach us to be self-sufficient in our back-country adventures?  The people that started MEC, I hate to say it, are mostly not with us anymore, and many of the people that took it over,.. well, we know that story.

On that topic,.. don't forget that MEC hurt, as much as helped, the local race scene. Sure they sponsored a huge amount of events, but many felt they also undercut an already limited market so the more unique homegrown events struggled and many disappeared possibly in part to un unnaturally saturated market.

This is the time to consider what you do for your current and future communities to replace what MEC did for us in decades past.  Places like HUB Cycling needs volunteers as does The Lady Alliance (depending on your skillset). There are all sort of clubs to join,.. MEC is not the sole pipeline to them,. the internet is. Never before have we had inexperienced hoards of people ruining the back-country as we do now.  People are in need of education: join one of those organizations and help them.


Political Values

Co-ops in general are a very left-wing concept. They make you feel as if you have a stake (and you should!) but also there is the promise that profits go somewhere more desirable if not back into your own pocket. That appeals to me. 

A co-operative is a legally incorporated organization that is owned by its members, who use the co-operative's services or purchase their products. They can and do provide virtually every product or service, and can be either for-profit or non-profit enterprises.  

Co-operatives are community-focused businesses that balance people, planet and profit. They are democratic and value-based by nature, and are often formed to fill a void within a community, to seize local opportunities and to meet the needs of its member-owners. Whether the members are the customers, employees or residents, they have an equal say in what the business does and an share in the profits. Profits are distributed to members based on the amount of business they do with the co-operative.

As such, co-operative businesses keep dollars circulating within the local economy, provide secure employment, and help revitalize, build and sustain healthy communities.


In Canada, MEC and similar organizations get tax breaks due to their status. In theory that gives more opportunity to give back and that is the case with MEC but that seems threatened with this buy-out.

If that part of MEC being lost is what ails you, perhaps this can be your substitute:
  • US based REI is still a consumer co-operative. Not local,.. but they are a parallel for what we have with MEC and I think people can still feel "ok" about $ they spend there. If you question their distance from a faceless corporation or your core values, consider this recent article where they surely risk profits by supporting used gear stores.
  • There are all sorts of consumer, worker and producer co-ops around us in Vancouver.  Doing business with these kinds of businesses is something all of us should do more of if we truly believe in re-investing locally.

...you need to know something else.  MEC's presence as a Co-op was not all positive. The best example is the local bike shop scene.  Most people do not buy a bike more than once a decade.  That means bike stores depend on the sale of supplies and accessories, and of course, repairs. When MEC entered that market in 2010 with their subsidized ability to undercut any pricing, it was devastating to bike stores.  MEC's own bikes were a minimal concern compared to the clothing, lights and repair pricing advantages and the fact you could just pickup that spare tire when you were getting your camp food and butane. MEC is effectively Walmart in this arrangement and combined with impossible Vancouver rents surely put crippling pressure on the local bike store scene which, by the way, are almost all locally owned. Many folded and cited the govt. tax breaks of MEC as an unfair advantage.

So,.. losing MEC might have an upside and it might allow an important market to breathe and grow under more natural conditions. In some areas they were never an alternative to the big box stores,.. they were the alternative to other local businesses.


Sustainability

If MEC's environmental outlook was your thing, it was probably for good reason.  They were a leader in the space for considering supply chain and ethical sourcing of products and for the most part walked the walk. In later years, however, we all got a bit more sophisticated in understanding those risks and the true costs of product development had more critical eyes on them.

To this, I say look at the manufacturers themselves and less to a large store than might have green products on the shelf next to a pressure molded piece of plastic that surely was shipped in bulk from China with zero consideration for environmental or social costs.


Patagonia is a company that arguably leads the way with social responsibility. Sure it is not all roses, but they certainly seem to try to improve year over year and even close off entire product lines, like shoes, when they feel they cannot source or manufacture them sustainably.

For me, Icebreaker is the source of most of my clothing and I can feel good about it. Yes, they manufacture in Asia and are pricey, but the product itself is:
  • produced as naturally as possible
  • above average manufacturing conditions for workers
  • is shipped with less plastic involved (mostly recyclable cardboard)
  • and unlike even cotton or plastic based textiles,.. the product itself can actually be recycled or will "rot" without harm in landfill
And lets not forget, they just make great stuff (that fits me!),... I'm a fan and don't mind paying more and was well over MEC's boxy poorly manufactured house brand years ago.

Shop local

I've touched a bit on shopping local, but really if you are serious about hoping that your outdoor spending dollars remains in the community, you have options.  The same goes for non-local companies that employ British Columbians.

BC probably doesn't manufacture many if any of the products you buy,.. but the locally owned resellers are plentiful. Here are a selection of locally outdoor outfitters (I'd rather put these people's kids through school or buy their boat than some American tycoon). Let's hope they can all make it through this economic crisis.  I've included my comments of what they are good for in my opinion.

Valhalla Pure - BC and Alberta only, covers a broad range of product lines for clothing and gear
Alpine Start Outfitters - I think they are local, and I really have found them to be stepping up as one of my faves (I did not use to be a fan but their staff are awesome and I hear they employ the famous Danish Meindl boot guy that used to be across the street from MEC).  Great COVID discipline too.
JV bikes - fills much of the bike accessory space in my opinion and independent.

Atmosphere is Canadian, and may cover some gear and clothing gaps left by MEC but I feel is verging on big-box/Canadian Tire style - difficult to say if that money will recirculate locally (but WHY did they close the Kits location?!).

MSR,.. not Canadian but has a formidable repair and support centre in Kamloops and really sets the bar high for not treating British Columbians as 2nd class citizens.  I feel good about them.

The following organizations are probably your BEST bet for local spending.  They are either actively developing ethical jobs in their communities, or at least community leaders and great resources for their respective activities.



SideSaddle - women focused, VERY ethical employers, community builders, just awesome.
Our Community Bikes - some accessories, repairs, and education.  All community.
Vancouver Community Bike Shop Network - the umbrella that the 2 above places fall under along with the AMS bike kitchen at UBC and Kickstand.

One thing I've noticed too, is the above places employ people that are engaged and knowledgeable. I feel that was an MEC thing in decades past, but less so now.

Lastly, cottage industries are another way to buy more ethically they are usually people making something more specialized out of their basement. The classic use case here is ultra-lite gear.  If this grabs you, check out this directory.

Wrap-up

I don't want to tell anyone where to shop but I think people need to know there are better options than going to Amazon.  Sure MEC's profits did make it back to the community, but your choices can still ensure that some element of that continues.

I want to take this turn of events to re-enforce a path I was already on, one to: buy local, buy sustainable, and consider investing time in developing local alternatives for events and clubs.  There is no better way to ensure a healthy local outdoor community than to participate in building it (or re-building it), and you surely will have more of a voice in shaping the direction of something local than you will with the "future" MEC.

.



Sunday, 2 August 2020

Finally a Trip Notification app that people will use: Overdue

Since 2002 my community of hikers has, for the most part, been banking on the safety in numbers concept.  Basically, never hike alone and you have more hands to help navigate and get you back to safety if something goes sideways. 

So far, for my hike club anyways (wanderung.ca), that has panned out and Search and Rescue has never been needed to my knowledge for what now adds up to thousands of trips. However, it is probably just a matter of time and although safety organizations have often praised how much we do as a non-profit to broadcast educational messaging to novice hikers, we have never felt comfortable with being directly involved with a "trip plan" system.

Everyone gets lost.
Hiking organizations are not paid call-centres and it is hard enough to get people to follow basic guidelines.. so the onus has historically had to be left to those participating to tell someone where they have gone, with whom, and when they are expected back.  We have always pushed that vs. the unrealistic paper-heavy forms which have too many points of failure (in my opinion).  Some of the great safety organizations locally (such as AdventureSmart) have come up with apps and webforms to do a 1 way notification, but I've worked in Operations long enough to know that the expectation to follow-up without systemic prompts is doomed to fail.  The people you send that message to are not going to set a calendar reminder...

With COVID,.. the need is even greater for a working system because organizations, like ours, are pausing their systems to prevent strangers from carpooling and committing the #1 risky activity,.. spending time in a small space together for hours.  The unintended byproduct: more people are hiking in smaller groups,. or worse: alone.

Well, finally I think there is a reasonable solution and full disclosure, I know the architect. A Search and Rescue professional with a background in mapping (Steve Chapman) has teamed up with an app developer to create something at I think will actually work (and I'm pretty darned cynical when it comes to human behaviour).

Add caption
OVERDUE is an app with a bulletproof user interface that could not be easier to use.  What it does is allow you to plan your trip (in the app!), then broadcast out to a predefined network or people where you are going, and only when you DON'T report back in, will it give them a ping (from a server, not your device so being out of range or battery is not an issue).
What is more is that in the process of setting up your trip, you enter a number of bits of information that would aid if you needed help:
  • Where are you going? (you can be as brief as a trail name, or map out the whole route)
  • What activity (you didn't think SAR calls were just for hikers did you?  Trail runners are often the least able to help themselves)
  • What car are you in?
  • what are you wearing and what gear have you got with you?
  • Who are you with (and their contact info if you choose to add it).
This kind of thing could help rescue teams immensely, along with the ability to take a photo of your start location (or yourself, a selfie of what you look like that day!).
I personally love that it asks which gear and which of the ten essentials you have so you kind of feel like an idiot (as you should) for not going prepared.

Adding a map route can be as easy as uploading a GPX track from another site or even better,.. you can pull from a library in the app from publications such as 105 Hikes!  You can then use it as a GPS device as part of your navigation resources.

Did I mention the UI? Along with an instructional video, the app blinks on what you need to do next walking even the most technically timid through what is needed. what I also like is that sure,.. you can pull fancy maps from some of the free maps etc. but unlike some backcountry apps, it doesn't feel like you are only using 25% of the features,.. this app has alot in it, but nothing you don't need or that will lead to confusion.

There is a 30 day trial period and $30 for the year if you like it (works on Android AND Apple).
I have never so strongly endorsed a product as this but I feel this one must just save lives and I had a chance to ask the hard questions to Steve and really liked the answers. 
I feel better about participating in an organization that sends people into the back-country and just plain happy for its existence. Every hiker should have this, so do yourself, and search and rescue team wherever you go, a favour and check it out.  It might just save your life.





Sunday, 3 November 2019

Broadway Subway - Everything We Know

The Broadway Subway Project is one of 3 current Vancouver infrastructure projects that I personally love watching unfold and I think will be great for the city.

For those that are unaware, the core idea of this project is to continue the Millennium Skytrain line from VCC-Clark station to Arbutus street (mostly under Broadway). The hope is that by tripling the capacity of current bus systems, and cutting the transit time by 2/3, more people will leave their cars at home and congestion at street level will lighten ahead of the growth of the city.

As usual, there are the ignorant armchair engineers and uninformed citizens that Translink and City Engineers must suffer.  I cannot imagine being recruited from the other side of the globe for my expertise successfully building similar things in bigger cities than here and listening to some of the complete bullshit as if for over a decade no accountants or data analysis by experts hadn't been focused on this one.

That said, despite the LRT idiots whose solution would meet like 1/10 of the key requirements of this project (but be cheaper, right!), there is a history that does invite some of that:

  • Under-built station lengths on the Canada Line (no one ever mentions the massive resistance citing no one would ever ride the Canada Line which is over capacity now..)
  • Skytrains plagued with outages over the years.  Since we have only 3 lines this can and has crippled the city (but doesn't that also suggest that if we build fast infrastructure,.. people will use it? To me that supports this project)
There is also a compelling case to be made for going further.. to UBC and a major campaign to make that happen. I'm a bit torn on that one.  Yes I'd like people out there to leave their cars West of Burrard but there is a very long and costly stretch between the University and Alma with zero business or population density where the people will never leave their SUVs. My feeling is the end should be Alma/Highbury (with a station at MacDonald too) in anticipation of the major, major development project there and existing business and population density already in place.  For the cost of the end part to UBC (a very fast road and almost stop-less now on 99 B-line) you can run one hell of a lot of last leg shuttle buses around the clock. 


COV and Translink have released many notices about the plans and timelines, and even setup a project office (right near my place!). However, like the Granville Bridge Improvement project the graphics and posts seems to submarine and disappear from time to time so I'm compiling my own collection of  "what is known" about the stations.

In this city, subway station placement will radically change neighbourhoods.  The city, of course, is trying to ensure that the cost of these stations is not wasted by allowing more densification along the line.  I'm going to share their drawings, but highlight something I don't think they are drawing much attention to: what will be redeveloped just to allow the temporary project work yards, let alone the stations themselves.

For example, near my closest station a major building is removed for the station, and several more go down almost a block away for a construction yard.  I'm not saying all development is bad but there is a 28 storey building being shoved in on the edge of my 3 storey neighbourhood... so my guess is the nice row of businesses being bulldozed between Hemlock and Granville is not just so they can store some sacks of concrete, but it will go from 1 storey buildings, to something that could alter the neighbourhood as much as the station itself.

First, here are the key links to read if you are interested in the "maps" of this project:

Let's go station by station and check out all of the pics together to paint a more fleshed out picture of what is going on along with the implications for the area. 
Red lines show the yards and an X indicates a building that will be lost.  My bad blue scratches indicate what part will actually be the station and not just new condos or businesses.
In many cases I'm guessing based on the info provided.

Great Northern Way

This station is where the train goes underground.  This should be great for servicing the growth here too, currently it is quite a walk from VCC.  Currently this is just an open area but the line (not the station), looks like it might require tearing down the Equinox gallery.

Mount Pleasant

I'm not really going to miss the tanning place across from Chutney Village but I am surprised that the new building up Main will go (but I think Noodle Box is crap and being this is a recent horrible building, no heritage lost).  The Tim Horton's is in an older building (an old bank?), but at least it is not the Lee building.






Broadway-City Hall

I don't know a ton about the process or machinery involved with boring, but this render shows the depth at which they will go (the station on the surface apparently remains the same but now you can go left at end of ramp).

What is interesting is how much space on the surface they are dedicating to the yard.  I think the City might own all of that land so I guess that makes sense but really a whole block is wiped clean.
The old 40s buildings don't surprise me, that block may actually improve for niceness for the average citizen but I'm surprised at the use of the parking lot off of 10th.
That lot is one the biggest concentration of the following things in our city:
  • EV plugins
  • Car2Go, Evo, Modo and some other weird share vehicles
  • Mobi bike share docks
To not have that removes of one of the major success factors for this hub: a means for people to come and leave the station without use of a personal car that needs a parking space.  I sure hope they have a plan B and long terms this space comes back (and more!)







Fairview-VGH

This station services the huge medical building concentration and the hospital itself.  My sincere hope is that the simplicity of taking a faster service with less stops encourages the huge worker population to take transit more (apparently already high).  More importantly, maybe be the truck driving out of towners (presumably family of patients?) that drum up business for VGH daily by trying to wipe out the cyclists on 10th,.. will find taking a subway here easier from wherever they are staying.
The current B-line already has a special stop here bucking the trend of only stopping on the arteries but this makes sense.
Unfortunately there are some unique looking buildings that will becomes casualties of the station and needed construction yard. There goes more sunlight...


South Granville

This station services "my" neighbourhood so I'm particularly curious about how it all fits together.



Originally Daily Hive said the station entrance was going to be closer to Hemlock where DeSerres Art store is now. This would have been slightly nicer for me, but I digress.  Instead, it looks as if the building that holds the Royal Bank currently is going to be replaced.
As it stands now the building will not be much taller than it is now but that seems likely to change given 2 blocks away a 28 storey building on higher land was proposed.  In fact, this entire block except the newer building on Hemlock and Broadway will be gone.  The building across the alley from RBC (and the alley itself) will become part of the new building (not shown correctly with my red lines), as will the entire middle of the block.  For a local this sucks.

Supposedly just for the work yard (and not the station structure itself) we lose a great store for cards and art supplies, and other businesses have already moved out including some of the more useful ones in a desert of useful businesses for non-rich people.  Our only bike store,.. gone. Soon to go (along with sunlight): Memphis Blues, Breakfast Table, decent Chinese and Thai.  Why oh why couldn't we kill 2 birds with one stone and wipe out MacDonald's, Joey's and the cheesiest furniture store on earth out (Jordan's) instead?  Clearly, the reason to use certain spaces for the construction yards is also accelerating certain development agendas in the process, and usually trouncing the businesses I care for and the structures with history (unfortunately).

Arbutus

The final station (currently) is Arbutus. This is the one I hear most complaints about for 2 reasons:

  1. Presumably because it inches further into quiet residential streets.
  2. Because it is the emotional focus of the end of the line where people feel UBC, MacDonald, or Alma should be the end.
The first one is not unwarranted. None is going to miss the Fido building which looked temporary the day it was built as a video rental store.. (though there are probably memories in the tree lot) but here will now be a bus loop in that same space.  I used to commute (by car) down Arbutus and that intersection can be hairy.  The thought of buses turning within 200m of the corner.. I'm not sure the subway will offset THAT many cars and given this is the hop off spot for the remaining journey to UBC... I imagine will very, very noisy and congested indeed.


To me, the work yard is the other frustrating part (but this one shorter lived).  For the duration of this project and another great project, the Arbutus Greenway, there will be a broken detour for pedestrians and cyclists.  Granted, there will be some killer new "character zones" added in the coming years, but it seems like bike paths always take the hit and these were recently built!





 Further questions

I'm really a big fan of this line despite losing some buildings I like and the fear it might be the beginning of the end for sunlight in winter along Broadway due to densification.

That said, I have at least one big question for the concept of ALL of these stations (especially City Hall, and Granville): why do we only have one entrance for each station? 

Congestion is not only cars,.. but also pedestrians crossing at intersections with cell phones and headphones and slowing the flow of traffic due to their complete ignorance of the road rules.  In NYC,.. you can get to each station from at least 4 different corners and walk underground.  City Hall and Granville stations should both have entrances that allow travel underground to the opposite corner.