Thursday, May 08, 2014

Ice climbing with the Agawa Canyon train

Soon after taking up the sport for people of questionable sanity that is ice climbing, I heard about Agawa Canyon. All I knew was that it is located in the untamed wilderness of northern Ontario, only accessible by train, and is home to a veritable treasure trove of stellar ice routes. It has been on my wish list ever since. This year, while looking for reports on ice conditions for my local crags, I learned of the discontinuation of the Agawa Canyon Train due to budget cutbacks - this winter may be its last!

Nothing like a rapidly closing window of opportunity to motivate. The afternoon of Friday, March 14, Jooeun and I drove the eight hours north to Sault Sainte Marie (known locally as the Soo), and the next morning, we lugged our massive duffels to the rail yard and onto a rail car. Winter camping gear, climbing equipment, enough food to feed this metaphorical army of two. Fortunately they allow 100 pounds of luggage per person - and we learned later even that sizable limit is not enforced.

The train runs the 300 miles between the Soo and Hearst, but we wouldn't be getting off at a station. Rather, we disembark at mile marker 112, and ask the train to pick us up at the same place at a later date, then just trust that it does!

We had chosen this weekend because the annual Agawa Canyon Ice Fest was being held at this time. The majority of the group took the Thursday train in, so we were breaking our own trail. The ride in was very comfortable in that luxurious train kind of way, and with only four other passengers, we got to stretch out. We leaned out the side for some photos, but with the bracing wind whipping at us we kept the photo shoot brief.

Upon arrival, we jumped into the snow after our baggage, and joked about having made a terrible mistake as the sight and sounds of the train faded into the distance.

With minimal fuss, we found the group's tents and set up our own. Soon after, Sean arrived back from his morning's mission, and led us down the canyon to a moderate climb to whet our appetites.

Even though the climb was relatively easy from a technical perspective, there were many challenges. A month earlier, Jooeun had never swung an ice axe, or climbed outdoors. This would also be her first multi-pitch climb and first time rappelling. Not to mention we were climbing in an unfamiliar, remote location, where a dozen other climbers were the only thing between us and walk of many hours to the nearest, likely deserted, road. In the face of all those obstacles, Jooeun showed some real toughness. She even placed two ice screws after leading up the second pitch snow slope! What a trooper. We topped out and rappelled back down before dusk, and walked back along the train line to the campsite.

That evening, we looked more thoroughly at our fellow campers' setups. Sean had wooden fortifications from years of trips in and stretching the aforementioned luggage weight limit. The trio from Michigan erected a light-weight tent one might see at an ultimate field; they had a gas heater running full-blast that evening, and combined with a half-dozen bodies and numerous layers of clothing, provided a fairly hospitable environment compared with the frigid temperature outside. There is often great camaraderie to be found in when facing hardship together, and this night was no exception. We cooked on someone's full-sized barbeque, shared dinners, swapped stories, joked, and drank together until late, before retiring to our respective voluminous sleeping bags. It got down to around -35 degrees that night, and boy did it feel every bit that cold when I needed to pee!

The next day we had a late start. Okay, I rose late while Jooeun killed time hanging out with the others. We hastily packed and hurried to a climb with intentions of making it back by 1pm - the time the train was scheduled to return. It was obviously important we didn't miss it, since the next southbound passenger train would pass by two days later, but we had also heard that it was often late - it seems the schedule is entirely optimistic (delusional?) in that it is based on having to make no stops. Sunday is a common day for people to leave their lodges and cabins, so we heard we may have an hour, or more, grace.

Since this was our last climb for the trip, I dared to try a climb almost as hard as I'd ever done, a two-pitch WI-IV (water ice grade four). The route was a real gem. It is set in a small canyon off the main one, and the midday sun caught trickling water coming off the rocks beside the ice column. However, there was no time for admiring the scenery. The ice was brittle from the cold snap, but I made it up reasonably smoothly. Upon arriving at the top of the first pitch, Jooeun said it was past 1pm. Time to go! I started preparing an anchor. In my haste I broke my v-thread hook nearly in half! but managed to make the anchor with it anyway, and rappelled down to the ground. Then Jooeun and I ran like our lives depending on it, back to the tracks.

At the end of the trail, both of us managed to slip onto our butts and slide down the embankment to the tracks in full view of the others, but once we found  the errant axe, it was good for a laugh.

Of course, the train arrived much later, giving us time to cook marshmallows and hot dogs in the fire pit, before the bass note of the train horn announced its arrival. Back on board, we again took lots of photos as we passed over the trestle bridge, ate, slept, and chatted with our new buddies.
That was the easy part of our journey home. We were questioning whether to even try driving eight hours to get home, after a big day of climbing in the back country, starting at 8:30pm. Even that turned into 9pm by the time we realized the GPS was trying to direct us via the US without asking if we had our passports! So we holed up in Sudbury for the night and drove the rest of the way the next morning.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Spring and beginner kayakers

Took J for her first time kayaking three weeks ago, at Cherry Beach. Nice easy access by walking from the car park across the sand and just a short stretch of ice. :)

Following weekend, went with her to Credit. Pretty serious high water. Put in at Streetsville. After she launched there may have been some yelling when she froze and I pictured her going over the weir 400 metres downstream. We practiced eddying in and out, but didn't run it. I blame a momentary lapse into wisdom.

This past weekend, J and I went to run the Credit, and Geoff and Thomas decided to join us, last minute. MEC doesn't rent ww boats anymore apparently, but they managed to get some from Europebound in Oakville. Oh, but they were sea kayaks! Much flipping ensued. Water level had dropped a couple of feet though, so it was good and tame fun.

Bought a new jacket (given up on second one reappearing) that afternoon, and J and I went to Cherry Beach to test out our new gear (she also got a wet suit - apparently it's a cold swim). To make it three times in two days! (got to grateful, regardless of context, at my age) went down the Humber the following day. Not totally boring. In fact, almost immediately J managed to get herself wedged sideways on a couple of tiny rocks, and slowly get flooded, until I grabbed her stern and pulled her free. May have been some crying. Sheesh. I mean, it's not like it was her first time in white water... Had a great time for the rest of the run, saw lots of trout, got lots of sun, and stayed dry.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Landed in Hong Kong

Holmes boys were scheduled for rendezvous in Hong Kong today. Got an email from Tim saying he'd missed his flight. I caught mine though, and Brendan was already in Hong Kong, so I'd say two out of three ain't bad (or unusual for a Holmes gathering). Not casting aspersions though - in order to make my flight, I only had enough time to pack a spare t-shirt & jumper, rock climbing shoes and toiletries. Travelling light and fast!

Met Brendan and co, had a beer in what could have been Kensington Market if Chinatown expanded (i.e. nice, bustling, pedestrian-friendly), time to crash.

Setting the bar low for photos.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Canoe-tripping with Terri

After a decade in Canada, I feel qualified to say that the most Canadian (hmm, Ontarian?) summer activity is canoeing. That means that when I got an out of town, province, country and hemisphere, visitor, Terri, canoeing was at the top of my list of duties as tour guide and organiser. What follows is of course the recounting of perfectly planned and executed canoe trip.

The week prior was spent arranging to borrow gear - little things like a canoe and stove (thanks, Geoff & Lin!), tent and compass (thanks, Noah!) and car (thanks, Wallis family!). Without time to leave Friday night, and nowhere to store a canoe overnight, we opted to pick up a canoe from Geoff's on Saturday morning, on the way out of town. Then we decided we should get a map of...err, where are we going?...and some fuel for the stove. So we drove back downtown, along with several thousand Blue Jays fans, through inevitable construction sites and lane closures. Once Terri bought maps of all the possible parks we might be going to, and fuel, and whatever other essential details I'd forgotten (while I drove around with a 16-foot water craft on my roof, looking impatient and out of place), we headed north.

Terri called for camping permit availability on the way there, after we decided Algonquin was the place to go. Somewhere near access point 3... I was momentarily distracted by an errant foam block coming off the car roof & canoe and bouncing into traffic, which required taking the slightly less than ideal Hwy 427-Finch-Hwy 400, route and the creative use of a towel, but other than that, smooth sailing all the way to Kearny.

Kearny has a backcountry camping permit office (for the spontaneous canoe tripper) and is nicely situated a few minutes outside the park itself. The lady who took our reservation cautioned us that since the paddle to the far campsite of the closest lake (Rain Lake) may be 3 hours, and it was now (ahem) 5pm, we shouldn't dilly dally, we took off with a renewed sense of haste. 30 minutes later we were unloading the canoe at the put-in, and another 15 minutes or so had us on the water. We were happy to see the first campsite after just a few minutes, and that it was not occupied, but we decided to keep going. Half an hour
Starry sky
later, we'd paddled half the length of the lake, found a ideal campsite on a point, with a tiny beach and one of those perfect rocks for walking into the water or perching on the edge of while collecting water, watching the stars, and/or feeding mosquitoes. Good thing it was a quick paddle...after a quick swim and the initial stages of dinner prep, we were back in the boat to retrieve the matches "somebody" left in the car. :) But really quite an amazing evening: almost-hot weather, a slight breeze to keep the bugs away, deliciously cool water, and after a great sunset, clear skies for star gazing and watching the fire flies.

The next morning was just a touch misty, but cleared to more blue skies and warm weather. After the requisite bacon and eggs, we scoped out a loop on the map, counted the hours back from the desired time to return to Toronto, and made the schedule fit accordingly. I figured Terri needed to try a portage or two, to get the real canoe-tripping experience, so I found a route with six portages totalling 3-4 kilometres...more portaging means an even real-er experience, right? We set off.

The portages were generally easy to find. The first involved stairs up a brutally-steep hillside, but as Canadian ambassador to the Australian tourist, I wasn't about to indicate a diet of double-doubles and donuts makes even a half-Canadian soft, and I threw the canoe on my back and charged up. About 500 metres of balancing a few dozen kilos on my C-6 vertebrae, I requested a change in back-packs, but otherwise we knocked of the first 780 metres of portaging with a minimum of fuss. We stopped for a break on another rock outcrop, and enjoyed some terrific paddling.

The bugs seemed to call ahead to each portage, and the swarms of horse/deer flies buzzing about us as we lugged our boat and gear were somewhat reminiscent of a circling biker gang, striking
unwatched/unreachable locations (of which there are many while carrying 4 bags or a canoe) with impressive skill. We also had a slight diversion in a portage easily seen from the water, but once we lodged ourselves in a marsh full of carnivorous plants (cool!) and shoe-theiving weeds, became hidden. But all part of the fun.

Terri knocks off a canoe-toting portage

Pitcher plants!

All these travailes prepared us (or had us dreading) the final 1810 metre portage from McCraney Lake back to Rain Lake. We doused ourselves in DEET and alternated walking and shuffle-jogging, while swatting vigourously and swearing, and even more so when the trail walked BESIDE the destination lake for far-too-bloody long, but reached the end alive, and made us all the more grateful for the cool escape as we dove in for a swim.

That was pretty much it. We retrieved our tent we'd left at the campsite, paddled back to the car, and made it to a river-side patio in Huntsville in the daylight, for Terri's first poutine, while sitting with well-to-do and decidedly less-scruffy-looking locals.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have a car to return. :)

Monday, May 06, 2013

Kayaking serendipity

After a half dozen sessions in this pool this winter, practicing rolls with Geoff, I've been fortunate enough to take advantage of great spring kayaking conditions. I kicked off the season with two fun runs down the Credit River in town, with Amanda one day and Ian the next. But that was just super mellow class II stuff - the real action began last weekend when Amanda and I ventured up to the Head River.

It didn't start off perfectly, when I discovered I'd misplaced the tie-downs. I thought I had a whole bag of webbing somewhere? Nope. A visit to Honest Eds for a replacement, another stop for food, and we were off, albeit two hours later than planned, thus missing the scheduled meet-up with others. Fortunately the Quaker Oaks general store near the put-in was able to tell us where the take-out was, and when we got there, the guys I'd arranged to meet had just finished. Adam wasn't sated and joined us for his second run of the day. That was awesome - yay, no scouting required! It also turned out he's a former river guide, so was a constant source a invaluable tips.

The main rapid of the river is called Triple Drop. Once again we would Adam lead the way, followed by Amanda, and I was bringing up the rear. On the previous rapid I had trouble seeing what line he was taking, so I figured this time I'd follow Amanda a little closer. Bad idea. Amanda got stuck in the backwash of the first falls, and I was too close to take a different line. I turned sideways as I ran into her, immediately got flipped, and pushed underneath her boat! She flipped as well, so when I rolled back up, she was swimming while holding her kayak and paddle. Adam had eddied out, so he was now last, and I was furthest downriver, trying to offer Amanda assistance, while floating backwards. Adam yelled for me to turn around for the next rapid - oh, yeah, right! I barely managed to turn downstream in time to go over the biggest of the three falls (maybe 2 or 3 feet). Yikes. Amanda floated/swam over it, Adam shunted her boat to the side, and I fetched the paddle. Fortunately she was fine, and even better, wanted another run at it.

While carrying our boats back and scouting the run, we saw a fish trying to jump upstream. Then another. And then we saw that the eddies at the falls were filled with dozens upon dozens of fish. I think we decided they were catfish. Super cool! I was able to put my hand in and pluck one out - big guys, probably almost 2 feet long and 2-3kg? We ran Triple Drop again, and finished the run without any further drama.

A week later we continued to have absolutely gorgeous weather. Cloudless skies, just a breath of wind and a hint of summer humidity. Ian's workmate Eoin is in town for a couple of months for a job. He left his four! kayaks back in yes, he's very good! We decided to head to the Upper Black, off Hwy 7 north of Belleville, because, like Head River, it's only runnable during the high water of spring runoff. Great to be both doing something new - an adventure!

After scouting the takeout, we drove to the put-in, launched, and were immediately greeted with fun rapids. I'd previously been given a heads up that some of the rapids are tough to scout by foot, but fortunately Eoin's experience allowed him to get a good sense of each from his boat, and eddy-in part-way through rapids to look around corners and such. This alone saved us hours of repeatedly exiting our boats and scouting by foot, but was almost essential for the really fun, but committing, canyon sections.

On one such section, I paddled into the eddy where Eoin was waiting, and he said to me "Did you see the dog?" I looked back over to the other side of the canyon, and sure enough, on a small ledge just higher than water level, a mangy, red dog was pacing and looking at us forlornly. Medium-sized; a Setter perhaps? She looked quite emaciated, and would howl and yip occasionally. Eoin said she looked like she might have jumped onto my boat as I passed. She'd clearly been stuck there for some time, days at least, perhaps when the water was high enough to wash her up there. We called out to her, and although she skittered about near the edge, couldn't be coaxed into the foaming water rushing by. Eoin decided rescue her. He ferried over, and leaning precariously from his boat, was able to have her come to his hand for a pat, and then he half-persuaded, half-yanked her onto his deck. Now he had a had a petrified dog crouched on top of his paddle, and he was floating backwards through boulder-strewn rapids! He bounced off a rock and nearly went over, and then was able to wrest his paddle from under the dog just as they were swept over a little drop. The dog fell into the water but was able to swim to the embankment, which was now the base of a hill rather than a vertical canyon wall. Eoin signaled that he was fine, and we started off again. The dog ran beside the river for a little ways, but eventually disappeared to who knows where.

We'd also read that there was at least one, and possibly three, required portages and big grade IV rapids. We got out of our boats to check out the first big one, and I was pretty shocked that Eoin was tempted to run what looked to me like a 10 foot high meat tenderizer (to support my thinking, there were multiple "Portage, Please!" signs on the bank). So when we saw the next one, and it was slightly less ridiculous, I suspected he would want to run it. He felt confident, scoped it out from land, and ran it like a boss. He was signalling what looked much like he thought I could give it a go, but I definitely wanted to clarify...I walked to the base of the falls and from there, couldn't see over the top - it was a solid seven feet high, and maybe thirty degrees of foaming, boulder-strewn carnage. But he was so confident, I was able to summon the courage to give it a go. I tried to take the same line as he did, and was just a foot off, but that meant I bounced like a pinball off all the features we had said to avoid... Still, I made it to the bottom, upright and intact. Woooooooo!!

The rest of the run was great fun. We even saw a porcupine float through a rapid and saunter off, just a few feet from our curious gaze. After 4 hours we were happy to be done. We took the kayaks out in someone's grassy backyard beside the Queensborough weir, and started jogging up the road when someone started calling out to us. The person living there wanted to give us a ride back to our car (actually, she was volunteering her husband). Skip the 14km walk/run to the put-in? Yes, please! And so we were on the road headed back to Toronto before dark. Also, two out of two trips finished without needing a headlamp? Win.

Saturday, May 04, 2013

Cervelo P3C for sale *SOLD*


I'm holding off for another year to break into the triathlon circuit. So I'm selling for flagship steed, my P3C.

2010 Cervelo P3C 56cm with Dura Ace gruppo
Excellent condition, almost solely used for races, never crashed
Rear 2011 Zipp 808 and front 2005 Zipp 404 carbon tubular wheelset (i.e. race wheels)
Front and rear 2010 Shimano R500 wheelset (i.e. training wheels)
Giro Advantage 2 time trial helmet

Monday, April 15, 2013

Beware the killer drone

There are clubs in Toronto to cater to every possible interest, sport and hobby. Some are mostly for day-dreaming (Alpine Club of Canada) or weird fringe sports (underwater hockey). I joined a bunch of programming-related groups last year, but hadn't gotten around to going - they've either not been presenting something that interests me, or the travel time just seemed overly onerous.

However, a couple of weeks ago, I got an email saying that the Toronto Javascript group was holding a presentation centered around quadcopters. Cool! And, it was in the MaRS Commons offices, in the same floor of my building! Perfect!

Funny coincidence - the two gents giving the talk, Taz and Josh, were actually guys I met when I hot-desked at the Uniiverse offices. They gave a really entertaining talk about how they were discussing how to take over the world, came up with a few options, but settled on using flying machines that they could potentially attach lasers to. hehe Cue the Terminator2 powerpoint slide. :)

Their first attempt was to buy an assemble-yourself Arduino-controlled metal beast, but decided the soldering, programming their own network protocol, and writing code to sync the four rotor blades all sounded just a weeee bit overly complex! so they replaced it with a consumer version that came equipped with wifi out of the box. People in the audience checked their laptops - sure enough, there was a network called quadcopter123 or something - neat. That left them with the job of connecting to quadcopter via firmware API, and writing a client. They chose to create a Chrome app in Javascript, used AngularJS framework for it's MVC functionality, and came up with a pretty neat solution in a matter of weeks. By making it available on github, I was able to fork the repo and load it on my own machine without leaving my seat. Voila! Once they disconnected and I connected, I had control of a killer drone in the atrium of MaRS!

The star of the show posing for the paparazzi

Creators and presenters, Taz and Josh

Drawing a crowd

I have the power!! Muahahah!