Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Impressions of a Calgarian Summer



I haven't written anything in about half a year.  Or, rather, I haven't published anything in about half a year.  Can you even believe my nerve?  But I digress.  As ~98% of my readers will no doubt already know, I spent the summer in Calgary teaching children how to bike, meeting fantastic people, and generally exploring a region of Canada which I had never previously experienced.  In the true spirit of science and discovery, I feel it necessary to divide this post into headings, and perhaps sub-headings.

A [Surprisingly] Progressive Attitude:

It's kinda solar-power, just a really, really old kind.
The image of a prairie pumpjack might not be the best picture to start this heading, but hear me out.  It is my understanding that this image has become more or less commonplace since the discovery of large oil deposits in Alberta.  It's important though, because my understanding is that this energy production has given way to...


That's right.  There are now large wind farms coexisting with conventional farms all across Alberta, and it's my understanding that the province leads all of Canada in wind energy production.  This was one of the first instances in which Alberta surprised me.  In my home [and supposedly progressive] province of Ontario can't put up more than one windmill at a time without drawing the ire of baby boomers who are convinced that human civilization peaked between 1955 and 1965 and all subsequent change is an affront to God and Country.  Rural Albertans have recognized that wind energy is a great way to make some extra money, so they do it.  They don't complain about the view being ruined.  They don't invoke the most bizarre example of equivocation I have ever seen and say Alberta is "naturally green without windmills."  They just recognize a good idea, and they do it.

Speaking of good ideas...

Another good idea?  Bike lanes.  Lots of 'em.  Calgary currently has 960km of bike lanes, ~350 of which are on-street.  And, as with other bigger Canadian cities like Ottawa or Toronto, I feel safe riding my bike on the roads because drivers are familiar with the relevant laws and are acclimated to the presence of bicycles.  Again, this is in stark contrast to my home town, where being off-sidewalk is the worst kind of nuisance.  Further, I didn't even realise what a good idea segregated multi-use trails would be until I came to Calgary.  I just assumed I would always be slowed by joggers and walkers alike, but Calgary recognized a good idea, and then they did it.  They also have "park and ride" lots near the trails, so you can drive part way into the City, then use the trails to get into the downtown core without paying for parking or dealing with congestion.

I don't believe those bike lanes are fluke, either.  From talking with people, Mayor Nenshi is to be credited with a lot of related successes.  Downtown traffic congestion has been at least partially alleviated by an extensive cycling network, but also free C-Train [light rail] service in the downtown core.  I don't know that I would ever expect similar things happening in Ontario do to anti-change protests, but I'm sure glad to see that they can happen somewhere.  The City appears to take its motto rather seriously.

Come Hell or High Water:


For those unfamiliar with prairie geography, it's pretty flat.  Also, rivers run through that flat land.  The result of this is flood plains, regions in which even the tiniest increase in flow will represent a very large flooding footprint.  As it happens, Calgary is located in a flood plain at the confluence of the Bow and Elbow Rivers.  Some regions of Alberta are even named for their predisposition towards flooding (I'm looking at you, High River).  So, when the peak flow of the Bow River in 2005 was a hair under 800 cubic metres per second, one could expect rather unfortunate consequences when the peak flow reaches 1,740 cubic metres per second (for comparison's sake, Niagara Falls sees typical flow rates around 1,834).  In fact, it results in the second most devastating disaster in Canadian history (after the 1998 Ice Storms in Eastern Ontario and Quebec).

When I first arrived in Calgary and went to my temporary apartment residence, I found it strange that the lobby was located on the first floor, the next 7 floors were parking, laundry was above that, and the residential floors only started after that.  Also, while walking down to 17th St SW, I noticed some apartment buildings appearing to be fully on stilts.  Why, I wondered, were all the apartment buildings so weird?  As it turns out, Calgary floods sometimes, and it's best not to have important things on the ground floor when it does.

As a point of interest, while I was evacuating it was interesting how eerily quiet the normally bustling downtown area was.  It was also interesting to see the number of people mounting bicycles to leave the area, likely while they went to stay with friends in the [elevated] suburbs.  The city's emergency shelters actually saw much less than projected use due to families and friends housing evacuees.  I suppose that's something Canadians are good at, though.  I'm sure residents of Gander, NL will tell you as much.

To its credit, Alberta has recognised that flood plains are not a great place to build important things, and have since passed laws making it more difficult to develop floodplains for residential use.  I bet someone thought that would be a good idea, so naturally, they did it.

Closeted Pyromania:

No one will actually tell you this, because nobody seems to notice.  I, however, am here to tell you that Calgarians are a bunch of closeted pyromaniacs.

Canada Day, 2013.
I've been to the most insane of Canada Day celebrations, having lived in Ottawa for five years, give or take.  We had fireworks, we had massive celebrations on Parliament Hill, we drank more than what most doctors will tell you is a good idea.  But never did anyone say "Y'know, maybe our buildings should spew some fire for this occasion..."  And, when I went to see the Stampede's Grand Stand:

I'll take this opportunity to say that the only reason I managed to take this photo was that fireballs spewed forth at regular intervals such that I finally managed to catch an outburst.  There were, of course, several more after this set.  And, not far from where this was taken, you will find the Scotiabank Saddledome.  When the home team scores, there is a large bic-style lighter that will spew flames, because one of the sponsors is a natural gas company.

I suppose what I'm trying to say here is that when the NHL's former Atlanta Flames found a new home in Calgary, I'm not surprised they didn't change the name.

How to Make Friends and/or Enemies:

To quickly make friends:
- Wait until someone references Edmonton, then say "More like Dead-monton, am I right?"
- Wear a Stampeders jersey.
- Go to a bar and watch a hockey game.
- [This tip applies during Stampede in Calgary, or anytime in BC] Stand outside and wait to encounter someone.

To quickly make enemies:
- "Oh, me?  I'm from Toronto!"
- Loudly proclaim "You know, I think at worst the National Energy Program was a necessary evil."
- Trash-talk Mayor Nenshi.  I'm not sure why you would, but it's theoretically possible.

Within An Hour or Two's Drive:

The Three Sisters in Canmore, AB.  You're just outside Banff at this point, too.  Source.

Lake Moraine, probably the most beautiful spot I have been.

Heading up into the Rockies, into the land of lodgepole pines and glacier fields, you will find Banff National Park.  It is the first of Canada's National Parks, too.  It is the first place that caused someone to sit down and say "This place is so beautiful that we need to protect it."  The resulting town of Banff, AB is an interesting place, too.  The city was created so that tourists would have something to do when they came to visit (tourist dollars were necessary to fund the CP Railway's construction).  Banff wasn't a pre-existing small town that eventually became a tourist trap, it was literally born that way.  The park is beautiful though.  That's really all I can say about it.

Now, if you were to head East...

Horseshoe Canyon and the Badlands.

Hoodoos, a large, dense capstone on top of bentonite clay columns.

Former coal mining country, the badlands of Alberta.  It makes for gorgeous geography.  It also makes for easy paleontology, this area is rich in fossils, and they just fall out of the side of those hills as they erode away.  Dinosaur Provincial Park is nearby, as is the Royal Tyrrell Museum.  It's the polar opposite of the mountains and Banff, in my opinion.  The mountains are quite elevated and usually chilly as a result.  The badlands and hoodoos are very dry and hot, home to cacti and prairie grasses as opposed to the trees and horsetails of Banff.

A fantastic note for me was that, no matter where you were in this range, my asthma symptoms more or less disappeared.  It was the first time since being diagnosed that I could easily forget my medication or even that I had asthma.  I am acutely aware of this fact now that I am living in Southwestern Ontario, and it makes me want to sing a song.

And it's all Big Sky Country.  Sorry, Montana.
Things That Threw Me Off:

One thing that immediately threw me was that many Calgarians will say "Hey?" in place of "eh?"  Several times after hearing "hey" while chatting with someone, I stopped to figure out what I was doing that would cause such an outburst.  Turns out they just say it.

Also, cheese curd.  I met exactly one person who seemed to understand the concept of what squeaky cheese curd was (Nicole, you're my hero).  So many people calling curds "squeaky cheese" when the curd didn't squeak.  As someone born in Eastern Ontario, it was not unlike the Twilight Zone.  Everything was more or less normal, except nobody understood cheese curd.  Weird.  They also don't bag their milk, and find the concept weird and scary.

Another different note was that Western Canada appears to be missing the Southern Ontario style angry tension that pervades whenever one is out of the house.  It's odd and hard to describe, but I think it's summed up nicely by a recent study which divided the United States into three distinct psychological regions.  "Temperamental and Uninhibited," "Friendly and Conventional," and "Relaxed and Creative," are the three regions and are more or less exactly where you'd expect them to be.  Southern Ontario, I suspect, experiences much of the temperamental and uninhibited psychology, while "friendly and conventional" would dominate in Alberta.

In Summation:

Calgary specifically and Alberta in general was fantastic.  My work at bike camp was amazing thanks entirely to the quality of my coworkers' collective characters.  I saw majestic landscapes, I met amazing people, I had fantastic experiences, I was there for a natural disaster, and I would definitely go back.  Fortunately, having a degree in chemistry should facilitate such ambitions.

They seriously need to work on getting Tag No. 5 vodka out there, though.