BC Rail Royal Hudson 2860, West Coast Railway Association, Comox Airshow, and Skyhawks

Another birthday has come and gone, and save for a minor panic attack when I realised I wasn’t 21 anymore (yes, that actually happened, believe it or not), I’m doing okay.

Things got off to a start on Friday, when Pure3D (my group at the office) went out to celebrate two birthdays — mine (obviously), and Neall, who is exactly one day older than me. (Although Neall’s birthday was the day before, we really didn’t get our act in gear to go out for lunch that day; we rolled two birthdays into one.)

I was supposed to go to a softball game that night, but I opted not to go, rather wanting to spend some time with Allison doing something other than sitting at home, working on the computer or watching a movie. (No, we haven’t been out a lot as of late.)

After making a quick trip to Burnaby to pick up Allison, we came downtown to go to our favourite Greek restaurant, Olympia, on Denman St. (Yes, Allison could have come downtown and saved me the trip, but I didn’t make up my mind until I got home.) Tyler joined us towards the end of our evening meal (having already had his dinner).

The three of us wandered about the Denman Street area for a while, before ending up at Death By Chocolate for dessert. (It’s actually kiddie-corner to Olympia, but we didn’t want to stuff ourselves any fuller at the time.) Following dessert, we adjourned to Tyler’s place to continue with our in-depth conversation. Unfortunately, we strayed back onto the dreaded Theory of Relativity issue (see [[Canada Day in Kelowna, Winery Tours, and Penticton]]).

The next morning, we headed out on our adventure of the day. For my birthday, Allison was taking me on the Royal Hudson. The Royal Hudson is a train of vintage cars driven by a steam-powered locomotive built in 1940. The locomotive is a 4-6-4 Hudson, number 2860. King George VI was very impressed by the locomotive’s performance when he and Queen Elizabeth (aka the Queen Mother) travelled across Canada by train in 1939. He bestowed the designation of “Royal” on the engine.

Well, that’s what they tell tourists. In reality, CP applied for permission to use the royal crowns and the “Royal” moniker to increase revenues by promoting a “royal” train. In fact, the entire 2860 class (numbers 2860-2864) all had the designation “Royal”.

Despite its Royal lineage, the locomotive was taken out of service in the 50s, and put on freight service until the mid-60s. At that point, she was destined for museums. In the early 70s, enthusiasts convinced BC Rail that they should resurrect the Royal Hudson, and put it into regular service as a tourist train. The Royal Hudson now runs between May and October, running a short length of BC Rail’s track (BC Rail is the third largest Canadian railway after CP and CN) between North Vancouver and Squamish.

We arrived about 15 minutes before departure, and hastily took our place on board in the end car, where we would have brunch. A few minutes later, the train softly lurched forward, and we were off.

This part of the trip I had been on before — Allison had taken me on the Pacific Starlight last year (see [[My first birthday in Vancouver, Trip on the Pacific Starlight, Porteau Cove]]). Unlike the Starlight, however, this was a day-time excursion, and the trip ended in Squamish, not in Porteau Cove.

Brunch began with a fruit cup, made of chunks of watermelon, cantaloupe, honeydew, and pineapple. We finished the cup just before entering West Vancouver. Apparently, we weren’t supposed to eat while waving to all the onlookers.

The Royal Hudson, like most steam trains, attracts a lot of attention, even if the train makes two trips through West Van every day. It’s the only train allowed to blow its whistle. Another bizarre bylaw makes everyone wave at the train as it goes by, which forces everyone on the train to wave back.

As we approached Horseshoe Bay, we were treated to the entrée: A large piece of freshly broiled salmon (it was about 1.5″ x 2.5″ x 5″ in size). It rested on a thin slice of fresh focaccia bread, over a baby green salad with basalmic vinaigrette. The salmon was very good. Allison debated over whether it was better than last year’s salmon. It was certainly different — Allison thought it was better, whereas I thought it was on par; I thought last year’s fish was excellent.

Dessert arrived around Porteau Cove — trifle. Unlike my father’s, which has a bottle of brandy (or sherry — I can’t remember which is it) at the bottom, this was cake, fruit, and custard. It was very tasty. This isn’t to say that my father’s trifle isn’t tasty — goodness knows he *loves* it — but this one was alcohol-free.

Arriving in Squamish, we had several options. BC Rail makes a point of flogging the tourism on the Royal Hudson as much as possible. They even go so far as to hire tour operators to come on board and convince people to go on tours around Squamish, including a trip to Shannon Falls, a river-rafting tour, or flights over the nearby glacier. All of them are designed to fit into the two hours you have before the train departs.

We opted for the tour that came with the price of the ticket — a visit to the West Coast Railway Heritage Museum, operated by the West Coast Railway Association. To get there, we piled into a vintage 1950s bus, which had scarcely put on 170,000 miles, and were whisked away to a train-lover’s paradise.

The WCRHM is a 12 acre park, not far from the downtown terminus for Squamish. It sits just to the side of the main north-south BC Rail lines, facilitating easy delivery of new acquisitions.

The park has many examples of old rolling stock (rail cars, passenger cars) and locomotives. It has the only remaining PGE steam train (the other two are lying at the bottom of lakes), one of the original diesel locomotives used to haul CP’s Canadian transcontinental train, and even a vintage 1890 business car (the equivalent of today’s LearJets).

Trains aren’t Allison’s cup of tea, that much I’m certain of. But she let me have my day, even allowing me the joy of riding on a miniature railway (which cost a mere dollar per person). I enjoyed the whole day so much, I’m seriously considering joining the WCRA as a volunteer. Railways are a huge part of our modern society’s past, and I want to help them have a future.

Filing back onto another bus, we returned to the Royal Hudson at about 1:15. As we couldn’t board until 1:30, I took the opportunity to take some pictures of the engine and the train. In fact, I took an entire roll of film that day. (Those of you who don’t know me that well should know that this isn’t an unusual thing for me — I tend to be a bit shutter-happy.)

The return trip was almost as good as the trip up. This time, we were one car behind the engine. The whole way back, I could hear the chugging of the engine. Several times I went to the vestibules (the “doors” to enter the cars from the platform) to stick my head out and listen. I’m still washing out bits of sand and carbon from my hair…

I was almost disappointed when we arrived back in North Vancouver, the trip over. Those trips always seem to go too quickly. We climbed down from the train, and make our way towards our car. The next stop was Horseshoe Bay, and off to the Island.

Arriving at the Bay, I quickly noticed a problem — there was very little parking. In fact, after dropping off Allison and driving around a bit, I realised that there was no parking at all. Impark (the parking Nazis in the Lower Mainland) had even gone so far as to deny ferry passengers parking rights at one of the major lots.

At first, I didn’t think we would make that ferry. Parking was limited. Luckily for us, at the time I didn’t think we’d make it, the ferry traffic was beginning to clear out. In other words, parking spots. Unluckily for us, it was in the most expensive lot: $10 a day.

Arriving in Nanaimo, we were picked up by the Collins (as usual) and taken home. Allison and I then stepped out for a while for dinner, allowing me to develop the pictures I’d taken earlier in the day.

Returning home, I was ambushed by the Collins with a steam locomotive-shaped chocolate cake. Yes, I was a very happy camper that night. I had everything I wanted for my birthday … except my own family and friends, that is. Luckily for me, most of them sent me cards (both the traditional and the newer electronic variety).

The next day was the day we had come to the Island for: The Comox Air Show. No, this is not a regular Collins (or Vailmont) family event. The only reason we were going (in fact, the only reason I knew there was a Comox Air Show) was Allison’s uncle Sean.

Sgt. Sean Moran is one of an elite skydiving team called the “Skyhawks”. They’re the parachuting equivalent to the Snowbirds. Sean was one of eight people selected for a year’s service with the squad. Since May, he’s been jumping all over North America, including a drop in Oakville on 22 June.

Piling into the Collins’ Honda, we hit the road for the 1.5 hour trip to Comox. Upon arriving, we had another 1.5 hour wait until we got in. Unfortunately, we had taken the “front” door route — the one that was clearly marked. This was the “opposite” route to how Gerry and I had gone two years ago — the “back” route.

So, along with about 10,000 other cars, we waited our turn to get into CFB Comox’ field. At one point, we sat for a long time without moving. At first, I thought it was because there were complete idiots who didn’t know how to organise traffic. I would later find out it was because Allison’s Aunt Valerie’s friend Peter’s car broke down. He would later drive by us on his way home to get it fixed.

Around 12:15, we finally reached the fence surrounding the field. A Buffalo (aircraft, not a mammal) circled above us. As we approached the gate, it dumped three streamers, which fell slowly to the ground. I suspected that it was to test the wind conditions for the Skyhawks. I was right — little did we know at the time, but Sean and crew were all in the Buffalo, waiting to jump.

Before I progress any further, I should clear something up. Sean is younger than you think he is. He is married to Allison’s aunt Linda, who is only five years older than Allison — Sean’s only about five years older than me. Just in case some of you thought he’s some old geezer leaping from planes for a kick…

Finally arriving in the base, we took a few minutes to stroll about. We went past some F-16s, some A-10s (which, last I heard, had been decommissioned), gliders, a C5 Galaxy, a couple of helicopters, and a small city worth of people.

On our way to the field to sit and watch, the show started with one of the Skyhawks floating into the field, carrying an American flag underneath him. (Don’t worry, there’s good reason for this — it was an “international” air show, which means the US Air Force had supplied a few planes for show.) He was quickly followed by another Skyhawk carrying a Canadian flag. This was kind of redundant, since all the Skyhawks have Canadian flag parachutes.

Aside: For those of you who watch “Due South”, you may remember a series of Mounties who parachuted into the frozen north in the final episode, all with Canadian flag parachutes. I’ll give you two guesses who did the actual jumps. And no, Sean wasn’t with them at the time.

No sooner had we taken our position that the next few Skyhawks came down, from a distance of 10,000 feet. The first few came in a stacked tower formation (one on top of the other). Another came down carrying smoke canisters under him. He flew into a spiral (on purpose) to create a “candy cane” swirling effect.

Four more skydivers formed a diamond with their parachutes, at which point we heard Sean’s name come over the PA system. Although we cheered, we didn’t hear anyone else — I’d hoped we’d be able to hear the others cheer. As it turns out, finding them wasn’t a problem. I just followed Sean to where he landed — the rest of the family was there, waiting.

Most of the family (at least from what I gather) was nervous — after all, he was jumping out of plane. How many people do that in the right minds? I, however, wasn’t the least bit worried. Now, this could partly be because I’d only seen Sean twice, and really don’t know him that well. However, I also knew that these were consummate professionals, who didn’t like taking risks. The odds of something going wrong were reasonably slim.

After Sean collected his parachute, he and the rest of the team bounded over the fence (as well as someone carrying 30lbs of parachute can bound) and held an impromptu demonstration of how to pack a parachute back up. It was rather fascinating. We basically ignored the rest of the air show until Sean left, to go see the sponsors.

Sean would return later in the show, taking Allison’s grandfather to the area reserved for base personnel and their family for a surprise presentation. I tagged along to take pictures.

Sean had the Skyhawks sign a special poster, and place a sticker that said “Happy 80th Ernest”. In a quick ceremony, the captain of the team presented the poster to Allison’s grandfather, who was quite touched by the gesture.

Skyhawks are brutally nice. Of course, they have to be — their ambassadors for the Canadian Armed Forces. They are effectively in media relations. Sean’s quite good at it, too. He rather likes it, so he told me. They were so nice as to sign brochures for us. Sean goes down as the first person I’d ever asked for an autograph.

The Snowbirds were the last event of the show. In typical Snowbird-style, they put on a great show. We didn’t stay around for the whole event, however, as we had to catch a ferry home. We ducked out while they were still flying about. It almost felt like the Snowbirds were running cover for us as we drove out the exit.

We returned to Nanaimo and prepared to leave for the ferry. We lucked out with another Ferry Classic, which meant we’d have good seating. Our trip was even complete with celebrities. Rather, celebrity.

As I returned from the galley with empty hands (they had no frozen yoghurt on that trip), I caught the face of an elderly Asian man walking in my direction. It took me only a moment to realise that it was David Suzuki. The David Suzuki. Mr. Nature of Things. Allison was looking at me, her eyes bugged open, nodding vigorously, as if in agreement with the question I was apparently supposed to be asking, namely: “Is that who I think it is?”

Upon reaching Horseshoe Bay, we exited the ferry, found the car, and dragged ourselves home.

It’s been a busy few weeks, and we haven’t had a chance to slow down. Both Allison and I were exhausted when we got home. Although we had been planning to see the Nanaimo Bathtub Races this weekend, we’re probably not going to go, opting for some rest.

Besides, it’s my turn to clean the apartment this weekend…

BC Ferry’s Fast Ferry, Bocce, and Rathtrevor Beach

Life’s a beach.

At least, it should be.

Last weekend was the second busy weekend for Allison and I, the second weekend of the month we weren’t home. We won’t be home for a weekend probably until mid-August at the pace things are currently going. Every weekend has something new for us to explore. Frankly, this is a good thing … provided the weather holds out.

We left on Friday night, meeting at Horseshoe Bay. Knowing that traffic would be a nightmare, Allison left from the apartment early. I left downtown on the 5:07 express to Horseshoe Bay, arriving a mere five minutes before Allison.

We dropped the car off at the Park and Ride, which the local Lion’s Club. Normally, the lot is free, you just have to walk the kilometre or so to the ferry terminal. When the Lion’s are about, you have to pay a paltry $5/day (a bargain compared to the other lots), and you get a free ride to the terminal.

We were somewhat excited to find that we would be taking one of the mythical Fast Ferries, the first of which went into service on 1 July. It was supposed to leave at 18:00. We boarded it at 18:07. Needless to say, the Fast Ferry hasn’t been running exactly up to snuff just yet…

The Fast Ferry is a catamaran with twin water jet propulsion systems. They run at a supposed 45 knots, making the trip in just under an hour. Supposedly. In actuality, it runs at about 37 knots, and in the long run, might save you about five minutes, all told. Why?

Because we let the government design it, that’s why.

All fairness aside, they did try. But as Yoda once said: “Try not. Do, or do not. There is no try.” The design would work well for longer-haul trips. However, the design is not exactly well-suited to the short jaunts across the Strait. You see — the ship points in only one direction.

Why is that significant? All the other ships point in two directions, allowing them to be driven from either end. No turning, no slowing down to back in; just straight-forward (no pun intended) driving. The Fast Ferry is a uni-directional ship. It has to be turned around before it can go anywhere. It needs a dollar to turn on a dime.

This means that for one leg of the trip, the ship has to turn around at both ends — otherwise, the cars can’t get off without backing up themselves. As it stands, it takes too long to empty the ship without people having to drive off in reverse.

And the wake. Homeowners around Bowen Island (which the ferries all pass) have been shocked at the near-tsunami conditions that the ferry generates. It threatens to rip up docks and smash boats against the shore. BC Ferries contends that the wake is minimal.

Minimal, my heiny…

On the way back, we were on a good ol’ regular ferry. When the Fast Ferry rocketed past us, it sent our ship rocking — the only time in dozens of crossing that Allison and I have been on where I could actually feel the ship rock due to waves.

Don’t get me started on the interior “features” either. I’ll just leave my opinion at this: The government would have been far better off spending the money on upgrading our existing ferries and making sure that the less-travelled (but still necessary) routes don’t suffer due to lack of funds. Heck, you could have built two regular ferries for the price it cost to build one Fast Ferry.

And there are two more coming off the assembly line.

Anyway, we arrived in Nanaimo about one hour and 20 minutes after we left West Vancouver and proceeded to the Collins Family Estate, in the prestigious Divers Lake area. There we were subdued by the plethora of relatives who had descended on the household for the weekend.

It was Allison’s grandfather’s 80th birthday party. The second one. As you may recall (see [[Snow in Vancouver, Dinner on the Island]]), we had already attended a birthday party at The Grotto in Nanaimo. However, it wasn’t exactly suitable for a large get-together of friends, so the official party was postponed until the weekend past.

The following morning, we rose and dressed for the occasion. Although not a formal event, we were obviously not going to show up in loud pink shirts and spandex shorts, so we dressed in beige pants and blue shirts.

I’m not kidding. We really did.

This, of course, was an accident. Neither Allison or I had heard each other the night we packed to leave — we had inadvertently packed virtually the same outfit. This is not just a fashion faux pas — it looks really weird. So avoid confusion and embarrassment, I raided Randy’s closet for a different shirt. It turned out that I grabbed a shirt that Randy had never worn — it has just been given to him from Mr. Collins. Luckily, though, it fit.

Overall, it was a good party, although Allison and I didn’t move around too much, we spent most of our time talking to old friends of family (that I didn’t know), cousins, and Grandma Collins. We didn’t really know many others. Late in the afternoon, Grandma Vailmont (the one basically running the whole show) abducted me to play bocci.

Bocci is a bit of a religion there. You can’t escape it. If you go to a Vailmont family get-together, you’ll probably end up playing bocci. Doesn’t matter if you don’t know how — you’ll learn. Doesn’t matter if you don’t like it — you will. Doesn’t matter if you have no arms — someone will throw for you. Resistance is futile.

I ended up on a team with Janet, Mrs. Collins’ cousin, and two of Allison’s cousins, Kersten (9) and Mitchell (4). Both are young. Like most siblings, they fight a fair bit.

I will wholeheartedly admit that I forgot was sibling rivalry was like — it had been a very long time since my sister and I had a good screaming match. (We now sit around the kitchen table, drink beer, and discuss finances. My how the times change.)

It was exceptionally difficult to play a close game. If one side got too far ahead, one of the two siblings would be upset. Janet and I got very good at placing balls close to the marker ball, and far away from the marker ball. We adjusted our strategies depending on the accuracy of the younger two’s throws. In the end, Mitchell (the younger of the two) won by a mere point. Kersten, despite losing, was not upset.

When the party finally ended, it took those of us remaining only a short period of time to clean everything up. As we retreated to the Collins Family Estate, Vicki (one of Mrs. Collins’ sisters) announced a barbeque at Rathtrevor Beach the following day.

Rathtrevor Beach is the Bay of Fundy of the west coast … only horizontal. Whereas the Bay of Fundy has very high tides, Rathtrevor Beach has very long tides. If you arrive at the beach at low tide, you’ll find yourself walking well over a kilometre to find water … even further to find water deep enough to come up to your neck (assuming you stand 5′ 11 7/8″).

At any rate, the beach is huge. Gigantic. Enormous. And despite the number of people who show up, virtually empty. This leads to things such as sandcastles, kite-flying, and lots of people walking aimlessly. In short, typical beach-going behaviour.

Upon arriving at the beach, we had to take Kersten and Mitchell out onto the beach — they couldn’t wait. Mind you, neither could I. The last time I was on an ocean beach (or a saltwater beach, depending on how you look at it) for the purposes of sitting in the sun and doing beach-related things was in 1991. (Yes, I know I went to the beach in Monterey last year, but it was way too cold to even consider swimming.) It had been a long time since I had walked across a good beach.

And boy, do you every have a long walk. Because the beach is so expansive, it also has a lot of interesting features, most notably tidal pools. Although devoid of fish, the pools have lots of shellfish, crabs, and snails. You can imagine the kids’ reaction to those. Most revolved around “cool” and “ewwww!”. Allison, Robin (another of Mrs. Collins’ sisters), and Wilma (yet another of Mrs. Collins’ sisters, who lives in Germany) gave out marine biology lessons to those of us not quite up-to-snuff with the proper information. While I’m at, I’ll mention Mrs. Collins’ last unmentioned sibling, Laura — Kersten and Mitchell are her children.

What do you associate sand dollars with? Tropical waters, right? Take a wild guess what thrives all over Rathtrevor Beach? Yep … thousands of ’em. They’re everywhere. You can’t take any of them with you — that’s a no-no. But you can pick them up and see what they look like while they’re still alive. Black ones are living … the whitish ones have since deceased.

Finally reaching the ocean, we waded in a little ways and splashed around a bit. Baby flatfish (halibut or flounders, probably) skitted about our feet, trying to get away from the two-footed giants traipsing through the middle of their sanctuary.

A few minutes later, we realised that the water was about to soak all the things we’d left on shore to stay dry. The tide was turning, and beginning to reclaim the shore. It was time to go back for lunch.

After partaking in much the same food as we’d had the day before, several of us ventured back out onto the beach to build a sandcastle. Initially just Brenna, Kersten, and Mitchell, I soon followed, with several others not far behind. The construction was hasty, mostly because the tide was coming in fairly quickly.

As Brenna build the castle with Kersten and Mitchell, I quickly built an outer wall, designed to keep the water away for a short period of time. The wall wouldn’t hold the water out indefinitely, but it would at least make for a more interesting destruction of the castle.

Sure enough, the water soon arrived, so Kersten and Mitchell took refuge in their sandy kingdom … for a few precious minutes. Eventually, the tide ate away at the walls, no thanks to the surrounding adults who were surreptitiously splashing the walls, hastening their demise. The flood inside the walls soon took down the castle’s structure, ending the brief reign of King Mitchell and Queen Kersten.

Following a short swim in the now-flooded beach, we packed up and headed home. Although we could have made the 19:00 ferry to Vancouver, Allison and I waited until the 21:00. In retrospect, this was a good idea … we would have travelled on a Fast Ferry, and we all know what I think of them.

Canada Day in Kelowna, Winery Tours, and Penticton

Deciding that the weather here had become too unbearable to stand for another weekend, let alone a long weekend, Allison and I opted to abdicate the Lower Mainland for places sunnier.

At least, that was the plan.

I booked Friday off (don’t you just hate it when the holiday lands on anything but Friday or Monday?), we packed a few things into a cooler (namely the two tonnes of fruit we received in our organic vegetable delivery — yes, I know I’m turning into a hippie), and started driving towards the Okanagan.

Within a couple of hours, we noticed that the rain was beginning to slowly subside. At first, we managed to elude Mother Nature. Every time I said “Look, there’s some blue sky!”, she figured out where we had disappeared to, and covered over all vestiges of the sun.

Arriving in Merritt shortly after noon, we stopped for lunch and a rest break. Having been chastised for jinxing the weather earlier in the trip, I had not said one word about the conditions. As a result, Mother Nature lost track of us again, and the weather was warm and bright. A bit windy too, so we ate lunch in the car for fear of blowing away with the tumbleweeds.

Leaving the Coquihalla highway behind us, we headed towards the Okanagan Valley. This trip, roughly an hour from Merritt, is plagued with many dangers: Severe Winter Weather, tight corners, and many examples of “driverius moronicus”. One particular specimen opted to pass three cars (of which I was the lead) right in front of on-coming traffic. The on-coming traffic had to bolt over to the shoulder to prevent a head-on collision. If I had not noticed this happening, we could probably have been in an accident. Had I been a bit quicker, I would have gladly jotted down the turkey’s license and turned him into the RCMP…

Arriving alive and unscathed in Kelowna around 1:30pm, we headed in the direction of my relative’s home. While in Kelowna, we were staying at the luxurious Chateau Tisdale, situated near the shores of Lake Okanagan. Thinking that both my aunt and uncle were working, I thought it best that we show up a bit later.

This gave us the opportunity to sight see a little.

Our first stop was the Kettle Valley planned community. This is a development that some genius thought up a few years ago. On a rather large chunk of land just south of Kelowna, developers are building a very large community, complete with town centre, schools, and character homes. In fact, the entire development is full of character — Victorian-style homes currently dot the area.

The development is far from complete. It will probably take 20 years or more to finish the development. But it will be very nice when it’s full of families.

We stopped into the office and one of the show homes to see what it was like. In addition to being considerably cheaper than homes in the Lower Mainland, the homes were high quality, and very nice. We were a bit surprised that none of the salespeople gave us the hard sell. We weren’t sure if it was because that was their style, or if it was because we looked too young. (We always get the hard sell out here.)

From the Kettle Valley development, we headed back towards my aunt and uncle’s home. Along the way, we opted to stop into the Summerhill Winery. (So we found out, it’s a law that all tourists have to stop into at least one winery while in the Okanagan. We had somehow managed to avoid it the first couple of times, but didn’t want to run the risk of a large fine for breaking the law this time.)

As we rounded the corner, we saw the winery’s piece de resistance … a large white pyramid. I’ll get back to that in a moment or two…

We pulled into the parking lot, and quickly found two things: 1) There was a free “sparking wine” tour, and 2) We missed lunch by about 10 minutes. We stuck around for the 3:00pm tour.

Our tour guide, so we figured, was a ski hill enthusiast working for the summer. (Another weird BC law states that the wineries, in return for getting mandatory visits by all the tourists, also has to hire all the ski bums who can’t ski during the summer.) She was a good speaker, I will admit, although she did exhibit a bit of attitude.

She took us around the winery, showing us the grapes Summerhill grows, the machines used to press the grapes … I’m going to pause here a moment. Interesting things to know about pressing grapes:

Summerhill presses their grapes to roughly 65% of their volume (this is called the “first pressing”), then mulches the left overs (including the stems and leaves of the grapes), and puts it back out in the field as fertilizer. Other wineries go to a second pressing, and even a third pressing. The guide expressed her disdain for additional pressings, saying that other wineries weren’t concerned about quality if they went to these additional pressings. Although she wouldn’t name names, she did say that the third pressing was usually referred to as the “rotting grape”. ‘Nuff said.

(Additional note, which I’ll add before Allison does: Fourth pressings usually become grape juice, and the leftovers are turned into fruit leather. Summerhill, obviously, does not do this.)

Okay, where was I? Oh yeah, we saw the machines used to press the grapes, and then we went into the winery building to see where all the magic takes place. Sparking wine (technically, it *is* champagne, but because “champagne” is trademarked for wineries in the Champagne region of France, no-one outside that area can use the term “champagne”; look for “methode classique” instead) is a work-intensive beverage.

After the wine is left in vats to ferment for a while, it is bottled and capped with bottle caps. They are then shelved for three years while the yeast eats up every scrap of sugar in the wine. (This is why champagne is so dry.) Then they have to “riddle” the bottles, which is the laborious part.

First, the bottles are whacked against a rubber tire to loosen up all the yeast (which is now caked to one side of the bottle). All 10,000 bottles of a batch are placed in special riddling racks, which starts the bottle out roughly horizontal. Each day, the riddler comes along, gives each bottle a quarter-turn, moving the bottle a little more vertical. (A riddler can riddle 10,000 bottles in 55 minutes.) By the end of the process, the yeast has collected in the neck of the bottle.

Then the bottles are put into a glycol solution (only the first inch or so of the neck) to freeze the contents, including the leftover yeast. Then comes the fun part — removing the bottle cap. The caps keep the contents of the bottle under the pressure generated by the yeast’s by product: Carbon dioxide gas. 125 pounds per square inch of it.

Needless to say, it’s a very messy process.

The bottles are then topped up with a “dosange”, which guarantees 750ml of sparking wine, a little bit of sweet wine and a touch of yeast, and then the hasty corking (with a hefty cork, I might add).

Definitely not a home-brew kind of project.

Following bottling portion came the warehouse … the pyramid (told you I was getting back to this). It seems that the guy who set up the winery is a huge believer in the power of pyramids. (What can I say, other than the west coast attracts the weirdos.)

There’s a theory that says a properly-designed pyramid will even out of the flow of tachyons (particles that move faster than the speed of light) and tardyons (particles that move slightly slower than the speed of light). Supposedly this is what causes the power of the pyramid. Instead of going sour, milk turns into yogurt; dull razors sharpen; meat petrifies rather than rots. Our guide suggested that was the reason why all the mummies in Egypt were petrified. I was about to suggest that it was because the bodies were drained of all decay-causing fluids, and then sat in natron (salt) for 40 days to dry it out — not to mention that most mummies were never in pyramids. But I kept quiet (yeah, I know, it’s a rarity).

Supposedly, this makes the wine taste better. The winery had held taste tests a couple of years earlier, testing out the theory. Everyone who tasted a wine aged in a pyramid and the same wine aged normally chose the pyramid wine. Can’t tell you if it was fixed, but that’s what we were told.

Then came the best part … the tasting. We were instructed how to taste wines (something which I had only partly known). If it’s a sparking wine, the first thing you do is look at the bubbles. They should be very small and fast-moving. This is the sign of a good sparking wine (or champagne). If the bubbles are large and lethargic, then you have something called “Baby Duck”. Yeah, it’s fake. If you don’t have a sparking wine, go to Step 2…

Look at the clarity of the wine — it shouldn’t be cloudy. If it is, put the wine back in the bottle, take it back to the store, and have it replaced. You don’t want to be sucking back any yeast (that’s the cloudy stuff). It’s not lethal, but you’ll be wishing it was.

Swirl the wine. Look at the film left on the glass. It should split into rivulets as it drains back into the wine. These are called “legs”. The thicker and slower the legs, the sweeter the wine. It’s not a precise measurement, but it’s not too bad.

Look into the glass, where the wine meets the glass itself. This thin barrier is called the “meniscus” (something I remember from Grade 7 science). If it’s a greenish colour (in white wine) or a brownish colour (in red wine), then the wine’s oxidized. That’s what you get for not drinking the whole bottle in one shot.

Next you smell. I don’t know why, you just do. Assumedly, you’ll know if it smells bad.

Finally, you get to taste it. But not really. Your first sip is rolled around in the mouth, covered all points and corners. You don’t pay attention to the taste, mostly because you have to orient your mouth to the new flavours of the wine. When you take your next sip, you’ll get a better idea of what the wine actually tastes like. You aerate the wine by (quietly) slurping it. I don’t know what this does exactly, but listening to 20 retired tourists do this is kinda funny.

After you’ve done all this, you can finally drink the silly thing. You have to go through this process each time you switch wines, or you won’t get the full effect.

Of course, that’s assuming you give a flying fig about all that…

After the sparking wine (which was quite tasty, I will say), we tried two red and two white wines. Our favourite was the Gewërztraminer. It’s a sweeter wine, and goes very well with spicy foods. Allison and I also tried their icewine after I made an inquiry as to whether they had any.

Most people drink wines that vary from 0 to 2 in sweetness. Most people I know won’t drink anything above a 5 — it’s too sweet. The Summerhill Riesling Icewine is an 18. None of the wine-tasting techniques work on icewine, incidentally. And if you drink icewine, don’t try to drink anything else for about 30 minutes — you won’t taste a thing.

Luckily, we weren’t close to being inebriated, so we could leave shortly thereafter. We arrived at the Tisdale’s around 4:30, and were promptly hugged to death by my aunt (she wasn’t working that day, as I had thought she might). No sooner than we were sitting in the kitchen did my uncle show up, claiming that their computers had crashed again, and he didn’t see the need to stick around any longer.

We talked for a couple of hours before setting into dinner mode. The barbequing duties fell on myself, which meant I had to try and not burn the steaks. I got lucky, although they were a bit too much on the well done side. (Thick steaks on an unfamiliar barbeque make for difficult work.)

After dinner, we headed out for the fireworks. This entailed driving down to Kelowna’s downtown, finding a place to park, and then walking to the appropriate viewing place.

So we walked.

And walked.

And walked.

And walked.

Did I mention we walked a lot?

We walked.

Finally, we stopped not far from the north end of town (or so it seemed), just as the fireworks got underway. Not the most spectacular show I’d seen, but it was far better than the slop Vancouver had put on the year before. It was no Symphony of Fire, but it wasn’t too bad.

Following the show, we fought through the 50,000 or so people who turned out to get back to the car, and back home. We passed out within moments of hitting the pillows.

We woke up the next morning to the sound of “Breakfast!” being bellowed by my uncle. We crawled out of bed and worked our way into the kitchen, to a meal of fried eggs, oranges, toast, superbly-cooked bacon, and cherries. It was a great way to start the day … especially since Mother Nature had found us again, and clouded everything over.

Before I knew it, my uncle was gone. It wasn’t long before it was our turn. We bade my aunt good-bye, and then hit the road.

The trip to Penticton is only about 45 minutes, and is a nice drive. Upon arriving, we hunted down our motel — the Majestic Motor Inn. Yes, the name is cheesy. So’s the interior of the room. The building was put up in the early 60’s (by my estimate). The interior hasn’t changed since then. It was almost fun (except our next door neighbour was a bit freaky).

One of the reasons we were going to Penticton was to meet up with our friends, Lisa and Miran. (Lisa one of Allison’s best friends; Lisa and Miran being an item; I know Miran from university, since before I met Allison. [Insert clip of “It’s a Small World, After All” here.]) Finding their room, we found that they were nowhere to be found. So off we went.

Lunch was of the order, as it had been a few hours since breakfast. We stopped at a place called “Joe’s on the Beach”, which specialised in New Orleans-style cuisine (at least, as much as the fare of a beach-front greasy spoon could be called “cuisine”). For $15, we were certainly not in the complaining mood — the meal was tasty, although large.

Returning to the outside, we couldn’t help but notice one thing: Penticton was dead. Here it was, the Canada Day weekend, and the vacation town of the Okanagan was deserted. There didn’t seem to be any real reason for it.

We walked down the length of Lakeshore Drive, almost to the Peach (a refreshment stand on the waterfront). Deciding we needed some refreshement, not to mention some money, we headed down Winnipeg St. towards the downtown. In a few moments, we hit upon a 7-11.

It had been a really long time since I sat in front of a convenience store, eating a creamsicle and drinking a slurpee. It was kind of like being a kid again. It felt good. It felt free. It felt really really cold when I drank the slurpee too fast and followed up with a large bit of the creamsicle. Lousy brain freeze.

On the way back, we stopped into the Visitor and Wine Information Centre (Penticton is roughly in the middle of the entire wine-making area, so gets the coveted Info Centre as a result). We looked around, picked up a few brochures, and then headed back to the motel.

We got together with Lisa and Miran that night, under the guise of going to a barbeque at the Lake Breeze Winery, in beautiful downtown Naramata. (For those of you who don’t know, Naramata is some dinky little place on the eastern side of Lake Okanagan. I don’t think it has anything but vineyards and orchards, let alone a downtown.)

After zigging and zagging around the countryside a little, we came to the Lake Breeze Winery, only to find that the supposed barbeque wasn’t on. No explanation, no nothing. I got the feeling that we were the only ones who didn’t know.

We stopped briefly at a lookout hill on the way back, which turned out to be the mountain that bears the large “Penticton” sign, visible from Highway 97 on the opposite side of the lake.

We had dinner that night at Salty’s Beachside. It tries to take its ambience from the Caribbean. I stress “tries”. The food was decent, although nothing really to write home about (which is why I’m not really mentioning anything other that we ate there).

Following dinner, we retreated to Lisa and Miran’s motel room to share a bottle of wine. I believe it was a Cabernet Sauvignon from Sumac Ridge, but I could be wrong. Either way, the wine and a discussion of the pyramid at Summerhill led us to one of the weirdest conversations I’ve ever had.

Miran and I attempted (and mostly failed) to properly explain Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity. For about two hours, we tried to explain properly why for a stationary observer, time seems to slow down for someone moving close to the speed of light. (It stands to reason that the person travelling at the speed of light will, in comparison to the stationary person, age less.)

Finally giving up trying to explain it fully, Allison and I went home to sleep.

The next morning, we rose slowly to weather that could be best described as “spotty”. Lisa and Miran were off to Oliver to find more wineries, so Allison and I opted to check out Sumac Ridge. The primary reason was because we liked the sound of the lunch we could get at their Cellar Door bistro.

And believe me — that lunch is something to write home about. Pecan and cornmeal encrusted chicken breast with apricot chutney, served with fresh baby greens with a red wine vinaigrette. Based on a suggestion, we had a glass of 97 Gewurtztraminer. The meal was preceeded by a basket of fresh breads which were absolutely scrumptious. (There’s a word I’ll bet you didn’t think I’d use.)

Unfortunately, the wine had one minor problem … we were in no condition to drive anywhere. So we hopped onto the winery tour to work off the alcohol. We found that Sumac Ridge was one of the wineries Summerhill frowns upon — they do multiple pressings. (If you purchase Sumac Ridge, aim for bottles marked with “Special Reserve” — this is the batch from the first pressing.)

Then it was through the coldest room I’ve ever been in. Allison and I nearly froze while our guide (another skiing enthusiast) explained why the wines were chilled to near freezing. They were settling out the yeast and a susbstance that sometimes is used in making tartar sauce. The weird things you learn at a winery…

We purchased two bottles of the Gewurtztraminer (as you might expect, we really liked it) and two small bottles of icewine (at 50ml apiece, there wasn’t much) — one was for Lisa and Miran.

We stopped through Summerhill on the way back, eventually buying a small bag of chocolate-covered dried cherries. Very tasty.

We spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing. This was, of course, a vacation — there was no need to work ourselves silly by trying to be too many places at once.

Lisa called us at 6:30 to see if we were ready to go out. The first order of business was the mini-golf. Despite the fact that I quadruple-bogied a few holes, I still managed to beat the others … by a single stroke. In fact, there was a spread of only four strokes between all of us. (In short, we were all roughly the same calibre when it came to golf … although one of us was more apt to flinging balls into bushes.)

Dinner was the hard part. We strolled right down the main strip without finding anything decent. We kept walking right until we were at the other end, checked out the Pentiction Resort, and finally settled on Mambo’s, the Italian eatery overlooking the lake.

Dinner was supplemented by a large pitcher of sangria, but was (so I’m told) bland overall. My risoto wasn’t too bad, but the others’ meals weren’t great. Dessert more than made up for it. While Lisa and Miran shared a tiramisu, Allison and I shared a meringue and vanilla ice cream platter with (real) whip cream and strawberries. Very tasty.

We opted to skip the Relativity discussion that night, and made directly for bed. Getting home, I suddenly realised that Allison’s sunglass case was missing the sunglasses. Somehow, since the time Allison had given me her sunglasses (magnetic clip-ons for her regular glasses) at the mini-golf, I had managed to lose them.

As you can imagine, I felt a bit like a heel that night…

Mother Nature was annoyed — because we’d been moving around so much, she hadn’t been able to put clouds over us properly. She figured she’s do the job right on Sunday, though — she blanketed the entire province with clouds. And so our trip home would be a dark one.

After quick checks of the mini-golf, Mambo’s, Penticon Resort, and all points in between for the missing sunglasses, I resolved to be less the cost of the replacements, and we headed towards home.

Instead of the usual Coquihalla route, we tried taking Highway 3 (aka the Crow Foot trail, or some such name). After going up and down about a hundred times over the next few hours, we decided that all trips to the Okanagan would take place via the Coquihalla.

Depression set back in once we reached Hope. The clouds were dark and oppressive, and the landscape looked its usual bleak green. After fighting our way through Lower Mainland morons, we pulled into home and rested from our weary trip.

Ironically enough, today is full of the S-word I dare not speak, for fear of jinxing it again. With luck, it’ll hang on for a while longer…