Friday, 21 July 2017

Creature Comforts: Animals & Hot Springs in Whitehorse, Yukon

On this trip I was hosted by the Canadian Tourism Commission and Travel Yukon.

I've just returned from Whitehorse, capital of Canada's Yukon Territory. Although many visitors use the city as a jumping-off point for places even more remote, such as Dawson City, there are plenty of things to see and do locally.

There's a cluster of attractions just outside town, along Takhini Springs Road, that I spent a day exploring courtesy of Who What Where Whitehorse Tours.

First stop was the Yukon Wildlife Preserve. If you haven't had any luck spotting the territory's distinctive animals in the wild, you're sure to see some in this spacious open zoo.

For a start, there are these mule deer with their impressive antlers:

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... and stone sheep with their frankly demonic horns:

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... a lynx which sat still just long enough for this much-zoomed shot:

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... and even a bison. That means I've now met both European bison and North America bison (collect the set!)

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After I left the Preserve, I headed a short distance along the road to the Takhini Hot Springs. These thermal springs bubble up from beneath the earth and are directed into two adjoining baths, one kept at 36°C and the other at 42°.

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I can only imagine what it must be like to take a dip here in the midst of winter, in sub-zero temperatures. I'm told if you get out of the pool mid-winter and shake your hair, it'll freeze in place!

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After sampling the springs, I had lunch at the excelent Café Balzam, which is located in the same complex. Though it's a creperie, I opted for the day's special: a savoury waffle with cheese, spinach, pecan, egg and salmon. Tasty.

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For dessert I chose La Chevronnée: a goat's cheese crepe topped with blackcurrant preserve. That's the kind of dessert I favour, not too sweet.

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My conclusion? Whitehorse may be a frontier town in many ways, but it doesn't lack creature comforts. Nor interesting creatures.

Saturday, 15 July 2017

The Curious Case of Juneau, Alaska

In Juneau I was hosted by Travel Juneau, and I travelled there courtesy of the Alaska Marine Highway.

I've just spent three nights in one of the oddest little cities I've ever visited: Juneau, located in the southeast strip of Alaska that stretches alongside Canada's province of British Columbia.

Why is it such a curious delight? Let me give you some examples.

1. You can't drive to Juneau.

Although it's Alaska's second-largest city, you can only reach it by air or sea - the mountains around it have so far proved impenetrable to road-builders. So I arrived aboard the ship you can see below, the MV Matanuska. Built in the 1960s, it's one of the vessels of the Alaska Marine Highway, a network of ferry routes which stretches from Washington state all the the way north and west to the far-flung Aleutian Islands.

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2. The gardens grow upside-down.

Well, not exactly. But at Glacier Gardens just outside Juneau, the gardeners have utilised upturned old tree trunks to create these strangely alluring elevated flower beds. It's also worth visiting for the golf cart tour they offer, heading high up along the slopes of the surrounding rainforest.

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3. It's the political hub of Alaska.

Although Juneau can't be reached by road, and is located in the far southeast of the state, the city is the capital of Alaska. It's held that status since the 19th century, though there have been attempts to move the seat of government elsewhere. For the time being though, the State Capitol stands proudly in the heart of the city - a city often visited by bears in the middle of the night.

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4. Its location used to be in Russia.

In the late 19th century, concerned about the vulnerability of its North American possession, the Russian Empire agreed to sell Alaska to the USA. In 1867 the territory was handed over with due ceremony in the Russian-era capital of Sitka - an event duly recorded in the exhibitions of the Alaska State Museum in Juneau (see below).

Naturally, as the museum notes, the indigenous Native Alaskans protested the sale; as the Russians were giving away a place they had never fully conquered, and which had seen millennia of prior occupancy.

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5. The Russian presence lingers.

Across southeastern Alaska there are traces of Russia's time in Alaska, most visibly the presence of Russian Orthodox churches. The oldest still standing is St Nicholas' Church in Juneau, a picturesque timber structure above the city's commercial core.

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6. There's a shop selling a comprehensive range of Hawaiian goods.

I don't even begin to understand this. But here it is.

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Friday, 7 July 2017

Masterworks at Vancouver's Museum of Anthropology

On this trip I was hosted by the Canadian Tourism Commission, Destination British Columbia (HelloBC.com) and Tourism Vancouver.

I've been to Vancouver three times, but never before made the minor trek out to the University of BC campus for the Museum of Anthropology. The recent opening of its Gallery of Northwest Coast Masterworks prompted me to finally get there, and I'm very glad I did.

The museum itself is excellent. Its focus is on works created by the First Nations peoples of Canada, particularly those of British Columbia. Thus the entrance leads down a ramp to a big airy space containing totem poles and other large carved pieces.

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On a sunny Sunday, with natural light illuminating the room, it was an impressive place to be; far removed from the stereotypical austere museum space.

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This central hall leads to several smaller rooms with various exhibitions. One of the most interesting to me contained a single work by the late Bill Reid. This big timber sculpture depicts a creation myth of the region, in which the raven discovers mankind within a clamshell and lets them out (reminding me of the legend of Pandora's Box!).

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My favourite room was the new gallery, which has a very clever and specific idea behind its set-up.

During the colonial years of the 19th century, as traditional cultural practices were disrupted, many First Nations artworks were acquired by private collectors and public institutions such as museums.

Over a century later, the provenance and precise significance of such objects has often been lost. So in this gallery, First Nations artists of today comment on these objects from the past, using their knowledge of both craft and culture to shine a light on each item's construction and meaning.

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It's a brilliant concept, which breathes life into what could otherwise seem dusty museum pieces. The artists' commentary, both in written form and audio, is warm and inclusive, often illustrated with personal stories which add context. You can literally feel the emotion these pieces spark within their creative desendants, and that's a marvellous thing to be able to share in.

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It's also respectful to the current-day First Nations people of BC, a reminder that they are survivors and their culture has endured. I'd love to see this approach used in every museum where indigenous cultures are featured.

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I know in my own city, Museums Victoria worked with the people of the Kulin Nation in the set-up of the Bunjilaka section of Melbourne Museum, which is devoted to Indigenous culture. Perhaps even more can be done to bring forth the voices of creation from past and present.

The Museum of Anthropology is located at 6393 NW Marine Drive, Vancouver. Check out its website for admission fees and opening hours.