Travel. Photo © MyBiggestFan via flickr and creative commons

Now that the school year has run its course, the exodus has begun. Those who seek to take advantage of the coming interrupted workweek have made their reservations, packed their bags, and made their escapes. Others are taking their time, planning the requisite excursions to visit family, see new sights, and experience new adventures later during the season.

It’s also around this time that the latest data and surveys on travel intentions and travel habits become known. Every June, BMO Financial Group releases its latest survey results about Canadians’ summer travel plans. This year, survey says, B.C. residents intend to take a mental vacation from worrying about money. We, apparently, each plan to spend more than $6,000 on vacations, summer outings and entertaining at home. We rank second in Canada in profligacy, although the report also says that more than 40% of Canadians have not yet set budgets for summertime expenses.

Statistics Canada indicates we like to travel abroad. Fewer B.C. residents traveled to the U.S. for spring break this year compared to last, while more of us travelled to other international destinations.

Another trend appeared earlier this year in the spring break BMO travel survey. Apparently, we British Columbians are a cautious lot. We rank third in Canada for worry about needing medical attention while abroad—even though our provincial worry quotient nips at the heels of the national average (41 per cent). We are also among the most likely of all Canadians to purchase travel health insurance for our excursions abroad….

Read the rest of this editorial at the Victoria Times Colonist….

Water stored in the St. Mary’s Reservoir, north of Cardston, Alberta, insures area farmer’s crops against drought, which is common in that part of the province. In 1998, when the reservoir was drained to build a new spillway, researchers discovered tools used by ancient Albertans, as well as bones and footprints of at least 20 species of long-extinct animals.

“If you had stood there 11,000 years ago, you could have seen mammoths, horses, camel, caribou, bison, wolves, ground squirrels, and birds—maybe all at once,” says Len Hills, professor emeritus of geology and geophysics at the University of Calgary, and one of the scientists studying the site. Joining him in the research are university archaeologist Brian Kooyman and students Paul McNeil and Shayne Tolman, the site’s discoverer. “We know from the way the trackways are intermingled that these animals were right there, together. And man was there, too—he was part of that environment.”

The site is a window on the end of the Ice Age in southern Alberta. By inventorying the animals that lives in the region and studying the role of early humans at the site, Hills and colleagues reconstruct the ancient environment.

About 12,000 years ago, the site was an island delta at the end of a glacier-fed lake. When the St. Mary’s River later drained the lake, it created a massive floodplain west of the island Within a period of days or maybe weeks, large numbers of diverse animals visited the area to feed on the delta’s lush vegetation and drink from the nearby river, trampling the gound with their hooves and feet. Thick layers of sand and dirt blew eastward from the floodplain to bury tracks, bones, and tools. A series of brief geological moments were preserved, recording the presence of animals and humans over a 300-year period about 11,000 years ago.

The oldest tools are Clovis points, flaked-stone implements used by the first North Americans. Not far from where the team was excavating the skeleton of a horse, the researchers found toold that may have been used to kill the animal. Laboratory tests reveal traces of ancient horse protein on two of the Clovis points.

“We’ve known from other sites in North America that they hunted mammoths,” says Hills. “But this is the first sold evidence that Clovis people actually hunted horses. Maybe early humans influenced the extinction of these animals—not just mammoths, but horses, too.”

What precisely caused the disappearance of so many Ice Age mammals 12,000 to 9,000 years ago is uncertain. Climates and environments were changing rapidly as the glacier receded from the continent. Those changes alone would stress animal populations. New species from Asia may have increased competition for food, or may have introduced diseases. Humans may have been another factor in the ecological reorganization.

When McNeil inventoried and analyzed the fossil trackways, comparing information about movement and size of the ancient animals with data from tracks made by modern elephant herds, he found some evidence that the herds visiting the reservoir site 11,000 years ago were stressed.
“The ratio of young animals to adults was far below what we would consider healthy levels in modern populations of similar animals,” he says. “This site captures this one brief moment in time and tells us something was definitely happening.”

The magnitude of the site is the way that it is letting us see how these animals interacted with their environment, with each other, and with early humans.

excerpted from: Reading the Rocks: A Biography of Ancient Alberta

Passport. Photo © J Aaron FarrTheir very name indicates admission or entrance. A passport—from the French passer la porte, or pass through a port—is a document that allows a person to pass from one country to another, from world to another, even from life to another.

We’ve heard of two instances in the last month in which people have tried to use such documents to gain entrance to new countries, new worlds, new lives.  Just days after officials determined that two passengers aboard Malaysian Airlines flight 370 had been traveling under stolen passports, police in London, Ontario, arrested three people for allegedly using fake passports to write exams on behalf of other students.

The incidents are of different orders of magnitude in terms of potential threat, but both events indicate the power of these small documents to open doors and allow passage.

No evidence exists to suggest the two men who boarded flight MH 370 with stolen passports had anything to do with the airplane’s later disappearance. Investigations indicate the Iranians travelling as Christian Kozel of Austria and Luigi Maraldi of Italy had no known links to terrorist organizations, and may have just been trying to get out of Malaysia. Both passports had been listed in INTERPOL’s database of stolen passports. It may be we will never know the truth in this story.

The story of the surrogate students caught using fraudulent passports in Ontario is clearer, however. They were writing English proficiency exams for foreign students applying to attend university in Canada. Canadian colleges and universities use the exams to evaluate prospective students’ ability to read and write in the language of instruction. Students must pass the exams before their applications are accepted….

Read the rest of this editorial at the Victoria Times Colonist….


Cockroach brains may provide the next super-antibiotic. Photo © Sigurd Tao Lyngse (Malakith, flickr)

Cockroach brains may provide the next super-antibiotic. Photo © Sigurd Tao Lyngse (Malakith, flickr)

“Don’t do it,” I advise Nature Boy every time we travel in less-fortunate foreign parts. “If you eat that, you’ll get sick.” I remind him of what happened in (fill in the blank with any south Asian or Latin American country we’ve visited). “They had as many cockroaches running about as they do here.”

“But those vegetables look so good.”

Nature Boy usually risks it.

Then we spend days bound by his bowels to our rooms, or until his antibiotics nail the sick-making critters he ingests.

Somehow, he doesn’t learn.

He has, however, learned to bring a full course of antibiotics with him when he travels. The drugs limit his quality-illness toilet time, and permit him to learn all over again not to eat leafy greens or other suspect food when visiting countries with lower levels of sanitation.

Just one century ago, common illnesses like the food poisoning or typhus Nature Boy insists on courting frequently killed. Other diseases, such as whooping cough, scarlet fever, and tuberculosis, also often carried death sentences….

Read the rest of this editorial in the Victoria Times Colonist….

Anticipating a vacation extends the period of happiness a vacation causes. Photo by Ralph Daily

A friend started a long-planned vacation last week. I interrupted her last-minute preparations with a phone call to wish her a happy and safe journey.

“You must be really looking forward to this.”

“Umm, well…. I am…. Now.”

“Just now?”

“You know, I’d booked the essentials almost a year ago, but I haven’t thought about it much since. With everything that’s been going on at work, I just haven’t had the time.”

Alas for my friend, in neglecting to nurture anticipation for her vacation, she has cheated herself out of some key holiday-related happiness. Psychologists have been trying to nail down the effects of vacations on emotional wellbeing for years. The verdict to date is that taking vacations boosts a person’s overall level of happiness only slightly and only over the very short term. However, a person can engineer an early jump in their vacation gladness—they can extend the holiday-happiness window—if they consciously feed their own anticipation for the getaway….

Continue reading this article at the Victoria Times Colonist….

Victoria Times Colonist, November 23, 2012—The words “isle” and “isolation” share linguistic roots. Both derive from the Latin word insula, which itself gives us the word “insulate”.

A curious thing can happen to large-ish mammal species that live on isolated, insulated isles. Over long periods of time, some species become smaller.

This phenomenon is called island, or insular, dwarfism. Scientists believe it results from the limited food resources typically available on islands and in other geographically cut-off areas.

In the short term, food deprivation leads to smaller birth weights and decreased growth in mammals. Over the long term, smaller bodies require less energy, or food.

Think of how much a football player or a basketball player or, better yet, a Sumo wrestler eats to maintain muscle mass and energy levels.

When food is persistently scarce, being petite confers a survival advantage.

And, so, over time, mammals on the large side when they live on mainlands may shrink in size when marooned for generations on desert isles.

(Gilligan, the Skipper, too, the millionaire and his wife, and the rest of S.S. Minnow gang weren’t stranded on their island long enough to show the effects….)

Living examples of island dwarfism include the Key Deer, found only on the Florida Keys. The Channel Island fox is the world’s smallest fox. It is native to California’s—you guessed it—Channel Islands.

Here on the B.C. coast, we have the Sitka deer on Haida Gwaii. Columbian black-tailed deer that live on the smaller Gulf Islands tend to be smaller than their mainland cousins. This, despite the abundant shrubberies and other garden delicacies we provide year-round.

Extinct species include dwarf ground sloths in the Caribbean, dwarf elephants in the Mediterranean and small elephant-like creatures in Southeast Asia. The Philippines once were home to small buffalo. Indonesia’s Bali boasted the smallest tiger of all until it went extinct in the last century.

And so, when B.C. Ferries raises rates and cuts service, and adds to the existing physical isolation of B.C.’s islands, the spectre of island dwarfism raises its tiny cranium in my own tiny cranium. As a science nerd, when I hear of the ferry corporation’s proposed cuts to meet budget constraints, I sigh and think of the Hobbit.

Not Bilbo Baggins. Nor the Peter Jackson movie due out mid-December. I’m talking about Homo floriensis, that wee relative of modern humans whose remains were discovered by archaeologists on the Indonesian island of Flores in 2003.

Partial skeletons of nine individuals were uncovered, dating from 95,000 to 13,000 years ago. The tallest would have stood 87 centimetres tall when alive. Hence the nickname, the “Hobbit.”

As ferry service is cut, as it and the options of flying or watertaxi-ing to and from the islands become ever more costly, what with increases in fares, fuel surcharges, airport and dock fees, parking costs, security levies, carbon taxes, cost of living, etc., etc., will our fate as Island residents be to grow ever smaller, as Hobbit Man (and Woman) did on Flores those millennia ago? Will our descendants follow the eventual path to petite-ness taken by the Sitka and local Columbian black-tailed deer? Will we, too, nibble our neighbours’ shrubberies when food imports from the mainland become too expensive? Will decreasing physical contact betwixt mainland and island eventually result in a new hominid species, our very own Homo vancouverislandensis?

Is this the destiny we choose when we choose to continue living here?

Okay, all smart-aleck questions, but the question of choice underlies them.

And it is a choice. Unlike deer, cougar or bear, we choose to live here, despite the cost of living, inconvenience, and limited employment in some fields.

More accessible and affordable alternatives exist… some, where employers are even hiring. Alberta, Saskatchewan, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia, for instance. Where it snows more.

We choose this place.

We must also accept the consequences of that choice.


Note: Nature Boy, wildlife expert, assures me island dwarfism won’t happen in our lifetimes, regardless of the outcome of BC Ferries’ current public consultations or its coming service cuts and fare increases.

“I keep hearing about island dwarfism,” he says, “but I’ve lived here for more than a decade and, well, I just keep getting bigger.”


A version of this article appeared in the Victoria Times Colonist.

The word la peyre is a derivation of la pierre, or stone. We have encountered a number of places whose names incorporated “peyre.

La Peyre

La Peyre

Chateau Peyrepertuse, which translates roughly into (tee hee) Stone-Whooping cough Castle—the spectacular mountaintop ruin of a former Cathar fortress, then French-border fortress and chapel to Saint-Louis/Louis IX, north of the town of Maury, in the Aude.

Peyrefitte-du-Razès—a farming village in the Razès region of the Aude, where we’ve hiked.

The double-hitter Peyrie-et-Peyrols—a hamlet near Mirepoix.

La Peyre—a village built into the cliff, close the the Millau Viaduct in the upper Tarn. These kinds of places, in which past architects and builders took advantage of how rivers now far below had eroded overhangs, caves and natural shelters out of their former banks to erect shelters, Anasazi-style, are called villages des troglodytes, or villages of the cave dwellers. The original church in La Peyre, now a private residence and art gallery, is once of the cave dwellings.

One of the most renowned troglodyte villages in southwest France is Minèrve (in the Minèrvois region of Languedoc, funnily enough). Alerted to its potential by the two stars the Michelin road map marking its name, we visited this cliff-village after we picked up our month’s supply of wine from our favourite winery just to the south. We had lunch in the riverbed, the river flowing underground for most of the year.



Minerve bridge and fortress gate

The tower of rock is all that is left of Minerve’s former defensive wall




Some notes I compiled in response to a query from a fellow-Victorian regarding renting accommodation in France, sight unseen, over the internet.

The only way to make the process of finding and booking a place successful and endurable is to narrow things down:

1) Which region you are interested in? Lots of Peter Mayle-genre books, by people writing about their adventures travelling in/moving to/living in/interacting with natives in various regions of France exist; the Victoria public library has a good selection. Peruse them, talk to people, yada-yada. That’s how I focussed on Mirepoix for part of our first recent trip to France in 2009: Angela Murrill’s Hot Sun; Cool Shadow was the book that did it for me.

2) What you want to do while you’re there? (food? Michelin-starred restaurants? markets? wine tastings? beaches? hiking? artisan shops? barging down the Midi Canal? accessibility to getting elsewhere? History of the French/Roman/medieval variety? pre-history? museums?… etc.) The answers will inform your decisions re: 1), as well as where you decide to stay within a region.

3) Do you want the village, the city, or the country experience? There are advantages and disadvantages to each, and your decision should be based on 2) and your personality and tastes. Gaston and I are both introverts at heart, and we really like the “little house in the woods” experience, but it does mean we have to drive 15 minutes to pick up the daily baguette. We’re fine with that, having also tried the village “walk out the door and down the street to the bakery” experience in 2009. We found village life to be a bit too noisy-ish, busy-ish, and nosy-ish for us (it really brought out Gaston’s until-then secret nosy-ness). And the townhouses that exist in old villages are a bit like caves, with narrow street fronts and few windows. That was kind of weird. And dark. But you might like it. There is certainly something to be said for walking down the street for your morning coffee and croissant. As I said: personality and taste.

4) If you have the time, aren’t sure, and are opening to trying different kinds of experiences, book a week at each of a number of different kinds of accommodations in different settings, and decide which you like best for future reference. This is what we did. We booked our first week in a working farm village in the côtes du Rhone area (!__region); our 2nd week south of Mirepoix, and our third week south of Pézenas, in Nézignan-l’Evêque. Each was in a very different setting, in a different region, with different kinds of things to recommend it.

As to websites, we’ve found to be helpful, except when booking in Paris (there, we prefer We’ve also used (owned by the same parent company as vrbo, but not as expensive to landlords, apparently), which tend to have more French-owned places for rent. (VRBO has a lot of ex-pat rentals.) French-owned may mean you get to experience firsthand the difference in standards in cleanliness/fastidiousness that exist French vs N. American/British. But then again you may not: it may be fabulous. The website gites de targets the French, but we found some great B&Bs through it. I’ve seen signs in stunning little villages for Clé, as well, which might be worth checking out—We’re especially intrigued by N° D’AGRÉMENT: 81MS00191 in Hautpoul, on the north edge of the Montagne Noire, above Mazamet.

There are things to be wary of when booking via the internet: scrutinise the photos, and be aware that most of the photos are taken with fish-eye lenses, so the rooms appear much larger than they actually are. Also, the photos may be several years old, and may or may not reflect maintenance. Try to plot out the size and arrangement of the place from the photos. Read the reviews. Unfortunately, VRBO permits hosts to filter reviews about their units, but nonetheless if you read the reviews with a critical eye and read between the lines, you can determine a lot of what isn’t being said. Communicate with the owner, ask questions, etc.