Tall ship adventures

The tall ship Caledonia. (Allan Lynch Photo)

“I must go down to the seas, again, to the lonely sea and the sky,

And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by.” John Masefield, Sea Fever

 

The Europa about to sail under the Confederation Bridge. (Allan Lynch Photo)

Tall ship travel is the most elegant of life’s experiences.

It’s also romantic, poetic and fun. In a world where terrorism and wobbly economics have stripped the elegance from travel, sailing on a tall ship is a ray of sunshine directed to the adventurous soul. It is a type of boutique travel, where everyday hardy crews of fit young men and women weight anchor, cast off lines, climb rigging, pull ropes, and drop sails to glide over the sea to the next adventure. Except that on a tall ship this method of travel is part of the adventure.

As a travel writer I get to do a lot of very cool things. I get to see a lot of the

View from a tall ship to land. (Allan Lynch Photo)

world, experience fine food and meet interesting people. Sailing on a tall ship is at the top of my list of fun things to do.

I’ve sailed five times on four tall ships. The first was the SSFantome in the Bahamas. It was primarily a booze cruise under canvas. Next came a week on the tall ship Europa, sailing from Cape Tormentine around PEI to Pictou. After that was a week sailing the west coast of Newfoundland on the Concordia. Finally, I joined the initial cruise of the Caledonia in the French Caribbean and again from Quebec City to Bonne Bay.

Some of the five miles of ropes which secure the sails on the tall ship Europa. (Allan Lynch Photo)

The Europa, which is taking part in the Rendez-Vous 2017 Tall Ships Regatta, was built in 1911 as a floating lighthouse. It is 185-feet-long, has three masts, and 27 sails which cover 11,000 sq. ft. and requires over five miles of rope to manage. Europa’s white hull, neatly tied sails and taut rigging looks like Disney designed a pirate ship.

The barquentine S.V. Caledonia is 248-feet-long, 30-feet wide and has 21 sails containing 17,000 sq. ft. of canvas. Under sail, the Caledonia, which has a four-yard front mast and two single masts, looks like a cross between the Bounty and the Bluenose. Caledonia, which was based in Halifax, is not part of this year’s tall ship gathering. It is for sale if anyone catches the dream to play pirate or enter into boutique cruising. Caledonia can accommodate 57 passengers in 32 cabins in four-star comfort. It operated with 22 crew.

Tall ships are a true adventure. Because of their size they can take you to ports

A fiery sunset over Anticosti. (Allan Lynch Photo)

that bigger ships have to bypass. One of the places we visited was Anticosti Island. I’ve grown up hearing the weather forecasts for Anticosti, but how many every go there?

Not surprisingly tall ships draw a lot of interest from local residents. In every community a ship visited we were treated as part celebrity, part curiosity. People who live by the water, who make their living from the sea, sail recreationally or are descended from seafarers are naturally fascinated by the anachronism of such a creature in their midst. It was pleasant, surprising and natural since all the communities we visited were founded in the age of sail. In these communities, fortunes rose and fell during the period when tall ships connected the world, so we became part of their living history. Continue reading “Tall ship adventures”

Havin’ a blast in St. John’s at the biggest and oldest events in North America

For a week each summer, St. John’s George Street, becomes the continent’s largest open-air bar, with express service windows, drink specials and top entertainment. (Allan Lynch Photo)

Many travel publications give readers stories based on 24-, 36- or 48-hours in a place. They have readers rushing around major cities like refugees fleeing insurrection. Well, relax. For a true laid-back, kick-ass time you can always count on St. John’s.

This is especially true in mid-summer when The George Street Festival leads in to the Royal St. John’s Regatta.

Most people know George Street is the city’s infamous street of bars. In three blocks there are 24 pubs, clubs and bars. The easy-to-follow directions I was given on my first visit to St. John’s were, “Walk that way. You’ll hear it before you see it.”

For six nights each summer George Street closes to the public and implements an admission charge to become the continent’s largest pop-up bar. Bands perform on a main stage constructed for the festival and street establishments waive admission charges, create special drinks and provide express service windows. People are allowed to wander the street with drink in hand. It’s New Orleans north. While it sounds raucous, it’s a fun, multi-generational experience.

I’ve twice attended the festival. I kick myself for not taking a camera to the first when I saw three university-aged lads wandering the street with an olive-green, velvet sofa. Periodically they would sit it down in the middle of the street and pause for a drink. Other times it could be seen leaning beside the doorway of whatever club they were in.

Music fans fill the George Street and its bars for the week-long festival that closes the street to traffic. (Allan Lynch Photo)

The festival is a great, great time. You’re outside. People who smoke can and there’s top entertainment. In 2014 acts included Dr. Hook, Billy and The Bruisers, Bic & The Ballpoints, Serena Ryder and for the last night Alan Doyle, who pumped up the audience with gritty home-grown songs that seemed like impassioned generational anthems.

Alan Doyle drives his music into the souls of his audience at the George Street Festival. (Allan Lynch Photo)

When he sang Just an Ordinary Day, it was like land-based thunder as a 5,000-voice choir joined in singing the chorus,

“And I say way-hey-hey,

It’s just an ordinary day

And it’s all your state of mind

At the end of the day you’ve just got

to say … it’s all right …”

He followed with When I’m Up, which begins with reflective lyrics “I am the fountain of affection, I’m the instrument of joy” then shifts to a driving joyful, powerful message about youthful exploits of grinning and spinning, finishing with a semi-Biblical, “I am lifted”.

Not to get involved in that song in this place means you’re dead. It was such a powerful performance the audience was exhausted by the time Doyle left the stage. It’s the passion of the place and people which is so uplifting.

The Royal St. John’s Regatta is North America’s oldest sporting event. (Allan Lynch Photo)

The next day, which was overcast, bought on the Royal St. John’s Regatta. This is one of the quirkiest events in the world. Quirky because it’s a floating civic holiday. While scheduled for the first Wednesday of August it is dependent on good weather. Every year at 6 am the regatta committee – not the mayor, council or premier – determines if the weather is good enough for the regatta to proceed, which triggers a civic holiday in St. John’s.

If the weather is bad, the committee meets Thursday to repeat the process

Regatta Day is about fun and food. (Allan Lynch Photo)

and so on. In it’s 198-year history the Regatta has only been postponed a few times: the death of George III, world wars (tho’ in 1941 it was held as a diversion for men at arms and to help with their physical fitness) and because of wind and rain in 2007 and 2008. Some times the weather turns during the regatta. In 1968 the last races ran so late that car lights were used to guide rowers to the finish.

Since Wednesday could be a holiday, St. Johner’s party the night before – like I did at the George Street Festival. If the regatta is postponed, they go to work and party again Wednesday night because Thursday could be a holiday. The local joke is never to schedule surgery for early August because you don’t know what state your surgeon will be in.

One side of the lake is for family fun and food, the other the diehard racers. (Allan Lynch Photo)

The regatta is the oldest sporting event in North America and the last fixed-seat rowing competition in the world. It’s held on Quidi Vidi Lake (pronounced Kitty Vitty). The day is filled with 20 races between 80 sculls comprised of six rowers and a coxswain (the guy who yells at the rowers). There are competitions for men and women with teams made up of a wide swath of the community from lawyers, to car dealers, members of the military, students, airline staff, pharmacists and others. One side of the lake is occupied by regatta fans, the other by a massive festival with games of chance, crafts, food vendors, music and at the far end bouncy castles, slides and rides for kids. There are two types of regatta attendees: the rabid racing crowd and the carnival crowd who ask, “Oh, is there a race?”

The North Head Trail starts at Cabot Tower on the bluffs overlooking the North Atlantic and traces the edge of the continent back into the city. (Allan Lynch Photo)

Another of my St. John’s must-dos is to walk the North Head Trail on Signal Hill, below Cabot Tower. I’m a desk-bound person, but even I can do a two-hour stroll along the cliffs overlooking the Atlantic, surrounded by rocks and wildflowers. There’s the scent of wild roses, the aroma of salt air, accompanied by nature’s symphony of wind, waves, and seagulls’ cry.

The trail follows the shoreline. Ahead are The Narrows, the 180-metre-wide

Part of the North Head Trail is cut into the hillside running by the harbour entrance. (Allan Lynch Photo)

entrance to St. John’s Harbour. On the far right is the rainbow painted city. On the left is the Atlantic Ocean and Ireland. I like to come here with a small picnic and sit with my back to North America, gazing at the sunlight dancing on the deep blue ocean waves.

The trail turns right towards The Battery, that eccentric collection of rickety crayon-coloured homes, some on stilts over the water, some forced up against the cliffs, that are popular with artists, craftspeople and holiday rentals. The last stretch to The Battery is via a narrow path worn into the side of Signal Hill. In many places it’s a straight 40-60 ft drop into the water below. It ends at a wooden deck for a tiny, tidy cottage at 44 Outer Battery Road. Depending on your direction, it could be

The trail ends at the first house in North America. (Allan Lynch Photo)

the last house in North America or the first. It’s owned by Barb Garland. On my first walk I was unsure about trespassing across the deck. But her late brother, Harold, a retired fisherman, who sat waving to sea captains piloting their ships in and out of the harbour, told me the deck was a public right of way built by Parks Canada. Garland says, “If it weren’t for the walkers I’d be lonely.”

How can you not love a place like this? For a mid-week, mid-summer break St. John’s is a winner.

The 2017 George Street Festival http://georgestreetlive.ca/george-street-festival/ is July 27 – August 2. The Royal St. John’s Regatta http://www.stjohnsregatta.org is scheduled for August 2.

Summer in Montreal, dance and laugh all night

Montreal is for lovers. Before some people dance all night they say ‘I do’. (Allan Lynch Photo)

Whenever the sun chases away the last grim bits of blackened snow the lyrics of The Lovin’ Spoonful’s Summer in the City ring through my mind:

Hot Town, summer in the city

Back of my neck getting dirty and gritty

Been down, isn’t it a pity 


Doesn’t seem to be a shadow in the city

 

All around, people looking half dead

Walking on the sidewalk, hotter than a match head

 

But at night it’s a different world


Go out and find a girl

Come-on come-on and dance all night

Despite the heat it’ll be alright

 

And babe, don’t you know it’s a pity 


That the days can’t be like the nights 


In the summer, in the city 


In the summer, in the city

 

If there’s any city dedicated to grabbing someone to dance all night it’s Montreal. On an average year they host back-to-back events, concerts, exhibitions. But for 2017, Montreal is celebrating Canada’s sesquicentennial

Montreal’s streets are full of great people watching. This couple arrived independently of each other and posed for pictures for strangers. (Allan Lynch Photo)

AND the 375th anniversary of the city’s founding. It’s fun on steroids. They scheduled 375 events for the anniversary, which mean expanding their calendar and starting in 2016.

With 9.5 bars and 64.9 restaurants per square km, Montreal is right up there with New York, LA, London and Miami for nightlife. The city has 200 theatre companies, 50 dance groups, and, curiously, is the tango capital of North America. Montreal is also home to three circus companies, including Cirque de Soleil.

I think of Montreal as Canada’s big apple. It’s been home to both massive fortunes (in its heyday, the residents of The Golden Square Mile owned 80 percent of Canada) and an uncharacteristic boldness for Canada. These two factors impacted the city by bequeathing great architecture and cultural amenities. Fifty years after hosting Expo 67, this Olympic city does not shy away from grand schemes or big ideas. And given the massive back-to-back redevelopment which took place for both Expo and the Olympics like the underground city, artificial islands, and reinvention of whole neighbourhoods someday Montreal may well be studied as a prime repository of mid-20th century architecture.

An iconic Montreal landmark, the Olympic Stadium. (Allan Lynch Photo)

But for now, let’s focus on fun. Montreal is French, so it has that focus on food and fashion. And to flush out the alliteration, let’s not forget festivals. For its 375th anniversary, Montreal is the epicenter of fun.

Montreal is the one of only six cities – with Rome, Paris, London, San Francisco and New York – that Gourmet magazine ever devoted an entire issue to. Editor Ruth Reichl said Montreal is “an absolutely extraordinary city. Here, it seems all the best aspects of the French, English, Greek, Italian, West Indian and Jewish traditions that have gone into the making of this city are treated with equal reverence. No wonder the markets are so rich, the restaurants so pleasurable. No wonder so many artists and musicians have chosen to live here. And no wonder Montreal is now becoming a tourist mecca. The fact that it is so affordable is another big bonus.”

Reichl added, “spending time in Montreal was perhaps most exciting of all. Everyone knows that these other cities are great places to visit; you have a good idea what you’ll find there. But Montreal is filled with surprises.” She concluded by quoting one of Gourmet’s other editors who says, “These people have really figured out how to live.”

Farmers’ market food presentation is an art. (Allan Lynch Photo)

Traditionally my visits to Montreal have included a Saturday morning at the Atwater Market for killer pastries at Boulangerie Premiere Moisson and salivating at the 750 cheeses on offer at la Fromagerie Atwater. I wanted to broaden my experience, so on my most recent visit I went to the Jean-Talon Market. Montreal’s markets are amazing because the vendors turn vegetable displays into art works. They make a cluster of cauliflower look like a great centerpiece. And they are manage to support specialists, like the Olive & Olives shop where the olive addict in me happily loaded up on so many cans of olives in lemon and olives in red pepper that I risked going over my airline baggage limit.

These markets are worth a visit for the colour, spirit, a late breakfast or lunch or to get the fixings for a picnic either on the Mountain or Expo islands.

Buckminister Fuller’s Geodesic dome which housed the United State’s pavilion at Expo 67. (Allan Lynch Photo)

I didn’t get to Expo 67, so the artificial islands created when the underground city was dug fascinate me. They’re great, green spaces close to and easily reached from downtown. If the city closes in on you or gets hot and gritty, a bus or a subway can whisk you to this watery countryside in minutes. There’s something awe-inspiring about seeing Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome rise over the treetops on Ile Sainte-Helene. I find the idealism of that period and setting calming. The islands are home the La Ronde amusement park, treed lanes and restaurants and places to picnic which overlook the city. Another option is to cross over to Ile Notre-Dame for a flutter at the Casino de Montreal, which is housed in the old French pavilion from Expo.

An office tower shows the faces of the performers who have appeared at the Montreal Jazz Festival. (Allan Lynch Photo)

What I appreciate about Montreal is its small footprint, which is something else it shares with Paris. Both cities are big, but for what a visitor wants each has a relatively compact geography. Centre-Ville, Quartier Latin, Le Village, Quartier International and Vieux-Montreal are all cheek-by-jowl and serviced by 16 metro stations. So with a metro pass, and maybe the odd cab, you can easily explore the city without the need for your own vehicle.

For more animated experiences, I took in four festivals in four nights: the Just for Laughs Comedy Festival, the Festival of Fire, an African music festival and circus festival!

Montreal’s gay village goes pink for Pride. (Allan Lynch Photo)

Lots of people were out for these events, but the only time it was crowded was going to La Ronde for the fireworks festival. The subway, buses and park were packed, but it was a short-term experience and even then people were orderly. And if you are an out-of-towner looking to avoid the crowds many downtown hotels host fireworks watching parties on upper floor lounges.

On my first night I attended the opening night of International Nuits d’Afrique Festival at the Metropolis Theatre. I came expecting tribal music, but was entertained by exciting African jazz artists with a type of calypso under-beat.

It was interesting because the crowd wasn’t enslaved to silence. They chatted, drank and enjoyed the music, but treated this as a cabaret not a concert.

My second night was back at Metropolis for the Just for Laughs Comedy Festival’s Nasty Show.

The Just For Laughs Comedy Festival is everywhere is the city. (Allan Lynch Photo)

My third evening took me to the Olympia de Montréal in the gay village for

You never know what will take the stage at the circus festival. (Allan Lynch Photo)

Festival Montréal Complètement Cirque. It was like Ed Sullivan meets Cirque du Soleil. It’s a witty evening marrying art, music, circus discipline and story telling. Alas, for unilingual me, it was mostly in French and while the audience howled with laughter at the dialogue I had to make due with the physical acts, which were astounding. It is a prime example of how vibrant, inventive and interesting Montreal is.

My final night was at the International Fireworks Competition. Over nine nights during the summer pyrotechnic artists from around the world present an evening where they use the night sky as their canvas to paint a picture of their homeland. These are great nights because rather than just seemingly random ooo-and-aaahh-inspiring explosions, they present a theme built on national identity. My first exposure was a decade ago in Montreal when I saw Spain’s night. The sky was washed in vibrant reds and yellows exploding to flamingo music. This visit I saw Australia’s night. The fireworks, like the country, were brash, bright and bold, and accompanied by the didgeridoo.

The nice thing about summer evenings in the city is that it was warm enough to sit outside for a late meal and/or drink and people watching. At a cafe next to the Musee Contemporary Art I sat under a Mountain Ash watching children, out with their parents, happily squealing as they cooled off running into the changing coloured lights of a fountain.

It was also then I realized that because so many downtown streets were closed to traffic to facilitate performances, the city was astonishingly quiet. The primary sounds were splashing water, children, conversation, laughter and music.

Montreal is a complete package when it comes to a city holiday. It has style, surprise and fun. And since it hosts more events than any other community in Canada so you’ll never be bored and always find something targeted to your taste and interest.

Montreal is an art-filled city, including the numerous installations in the subway. (Allan Lynch Photo)

For current information on Montreal’s 375th anniversary events, click on: http://www.375mtl.com/en/

 

 

The Calgary Stampede is another Canadian superlative: the world’s biggest rodeo

Competitions in the rodeo ring can be a very long 8 seconds. (Allan Lynch Photo)

Alberta, like Texas, is big, brash and full of cash. So it shouldn’t surprise anyone that its signature event, the superlative-inducing Calgary Stampede is both the world’s biggest outdoor show and the world’s richest rodeo. And for someone new to cowboy culture it is nothing short of thrilling.

Until you attend the Stampede you can’t imagine the colour, energy and excitement. It hits you the moment you land in the city. Everyone is dressed in their best cowboy bling. During the Stampede, Calgary is a city awash in boots and buckles, jeans and jewellery. It’s a city where cowboy hats don’t seem out-of-place in a bank, restaurant, office, behind the wheel of a truck or on someone in the saddle. Albertans seem born to the saddle, though I don’t understand how anyone wearing a belt buckle so big that it amounts to a small shield at their abdomen can bend over to sit in one, but they manage.

The flag parade launches the stadium activities. (Allan Lynch Photo)
Two Calgarians into the Stampede. (Allan Lynch Photo)

Before I arrived in the city, I was told that during Stampede week, Calgarians “drink triples, see double, and act single.” You certainly get the party feel. Not that the streets are full of falling down drunks. Far from it. But people smile and have that carefree attitude of holidayers for whom life is good. Hotel parking lots are converted into tented discos and cowboy bars. And a local restaurant hosts annual “Testicle Festival”, serving up platters of fresh Prairie Oysters in suggestively named dishes like Battered Balls and Italian Stallion (“oysters” on linguine in a tomato-basil bolognese). During the Stampede, Calgary lets down its hair and has a laugh – even at itself.

For a big city, whose core is dominated by the office towers of huge oil companies, Calgary is a friendly place with a real sense of community. The staggering scale of the volunteerism is one of the hidden superlatives about the Calgary Stampede. The Stampede operates with an army of 2,500 volunteers, working on 50 committees. There’s such community spirit here that there is a five-year waitlist to get on a Stampede committee.

First Nations lead the Stampede parade through the city. (Allan Lynch Photo)

To start the cowboy experience you can join a horse-drawn wagon tour of the downtown, which can also deliver you to the Stampede Grounds. Passengers are encouraged to mark intersections and greet pedestrians with throat-stretching YEE-HAWs and YA-HOOs, which often earn similar tribal chants in return. The rattle of the rigs, the clip clop of horses’ hooves and jingle of their harnesses seem to quickly transport these Prairie people back to their roots. Calgary may be the centre of the oil industry, but its heart is still in the Prairie’s wide open spaces and endless skies.

The Stampede midway at night. If it can be fried or barbecued, it’s here. (Allan Lynch Photo)

At the Stampede itself, my head spins like it did as a child. There are the usual screams and lights of the midway and diet-busting aromas from hundreds of food sellers – if it’s fryable or barbecuable it’s here. In addition to the usual carnival elements are surprise features like the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame, the Agrium Ag-tivity in the City and Indian Village.

A traditional dancer in a land-based rainbow-coloured costume. (Allan Lynch Photo)

While I looked at the over-the-top rhinestone infused costumes of Canadian country greats at the Hall of Fame, I was lured outside by the not-to-subtle blasts of the Stampede Brass Band, who wander the fair grounds putting on impromptu concerts. The Agrium is a cool area that introduces children to, and reminds the rest of us of, the source of our food. It’s like a hip, high-tech trip to the farm. Kids can sit on a wooden horse and lasso a steer. They can see a sow nursing her piglets, touch chicks, pat a bull, view a buffalo and milk a mechanical cow.

The Native People’s village contains rows of teepees, fantastically coloured costumes, cooking demonstrations, dance displays and native competitions.

Part of the First Nations’ participation in the Stampede. (Allan Lynch Photo)

Of course the main draw and action is in the Stampede ring. Since recorded history, mankind has been staging spectacles, from the blood and gorge of the Colosseum in Rome to the mock battles staged in the fountains of Versailles. The Stampede is equal to anything I know of for sheer spectacle.

Before each event, participants run into the Stampede ring to take a bow. I

Another long 8-second ride. (Allan Lynch Photo)

found it comical watching a wall of cowboys trying to run with their thick fringed leather chaps flapping like an ill-fitting kids’ costume. Then, with a quick wave of their hats, they disappear behind the head-high wall of metal railings to the animals.

The Stampede rodeo events include: Saddle Bronco, Bareback Bronco, Bareback Bull Riding, Tie-Down Roping, Steer Wrestling, Ladies Barrel Racing and Chuckwagon races.

Stampede bling includes plate-sized belt buckles. (Allan Lynch Photo)

Watching the Saddle Bronco and Bareback Bull Riding I wondered how many Prairie parents asked their sons, “Are you crazy? Are you trying to break your neck?” There’s a fine line between courage and crazy. The bronco and bull events are bone-rattling rides. The riders look like raggedly dolls being tossed unmercifully with limbs, hands and feet flying everywhere while they hold on for eight-very long seconds. Eight seconds doesn’t seem long until you’ve seen how much jumping, twisting, bucking and turning an horse or bull can manage in that time.

Riders are expected to have a lot of leg movement and are judged on how well

Some Stampede belt buckles are highly personalized. (Allan Lynch Photo)

they ride‚ as well as the participation of the animal. So it doesn’t pay to pick a passive pony or benevolent bull.

I also learned that different body types help with various events. For example, bull riders are short guys because it’s hard to balance yourself on a bull if you’re tall. They also tend to have very thick arms.

If the rider lasts his eight seconds, outriders come to his aid. Whether the cowboy is lifted from his mount by an outrider or picked up after being thrown face down in the dirt, it always ends in a classic cowboy tradition with him dusting himself off and raising his hand to the roar of an appreciative crowd. It is cliched and wonderful. It seemed like we had a new Colosseum, a new hero, and an updated spectacle.

Two of the many chiefs who appear at the Stampede. (Allan Lynch Photo)

One of the members of the medical team – the Stampede maintains a clinic in the cowboys’ lounge (there are even more vets on duty than doctors) – told me, “People who have not been around rodeo have a misconception that cowboys are weekend warriors, that ride on Saturday, sit around all week, then ride again the following weekend. To give you a little snapshot of the schedule most of these cowboys, eight of the guys rode here for on the first four days, all entered rodeos in Utah, Wyoming, and Colorado. They don’t get to stay two days in a row in one place. Typically they would have had to criss-cross between four rodeos. So, for example, yesterday one athlete was up in Sheraton in the morning, Colorado Springs that evening, then drove through the night to get here for today.”

What I also found interesting is the description of rodeo cowboys as athletes. It wasn’t something I ever considered, but of course they are. I wrongly assumed the competitors were ranch hands having a lark. What is different about their sport is the clothing. Nike doesn’t do boots and chaps, so they wear plaids instead of logos.

The thundering excitement of the Calgary Stampede chuck wagon races. (Allan Lynch Photo)
The outriders scramble to catch up with their chuckwagon. (Allan Lynch Photo)

The Stampede’s highlight is the chuckwagon races. The only thing I can liken this fast and frenetic pace to is the chariot race in the film Ben Hur. They are almost too exciting.

Each race is between four teams. Each team comprises a chuck wagon pulled by a four-horse team, a driver, four outriders and their horses. That means the ring fills with four wagons, 20 men and 32 horses. They begin from a static start, with riders on the ground by their horses, the reins of the wagon taut as these thoroughbred horses strain to do what they were born to do. When the start horn sounds the ring breaks into organized chaos. Suddenly teams of horses pulling brightly coloured chuckwagons dash around rubber pillions, while outriders fling items representative of the cattle-drive campfires on to the back of the wagons, then throw themselves on to their already racing horses. The air fills with a loud blur. The ring is blanketed by the thunder of 128 hooves, flapping tails and flying mud. Then in seconds, poof, they’re gone, leaving the ring calm for a minute or two before their thundering hooves, shouts of drivers and rattle of wagons flies to the finish. It’s orchestrated pandemonium.

It’s a hell of a high note on which to end the Stampede. It’s a massive job keeping an iconic festival or event fresh. So many become faded and worn around the edges as locals tire of it and volunteers repeat themselves. New blood is too often met with a ‘we tried that’ dismissal, so that slowly great events get strangled by inertia and protectionism from the old guard. Not the Calgary Stampede. This celebration, which started in 1912, manages to maintain its youthful energy, positive freshness and a frontier scappiness. It truly is worth experiencing.

Each evening, while animals and athletes rest there is a large MainStage show. (Allan Lynch Photo)

 

 

Celtic competitions and highland games

The caber toss is a star event at any highland games. (Allan Lynch Photo)

Philosophers may debate whether a tree falling in the forest makes a noise, but a tossed caber certainly generates sound. There’s the prolonged “aaaaaarrrrrrggggggghhhhhhh” screamed by the caber tosser as he runs across an open field trying to throw a telephone-pole-sized log end-over-end, the clunk of the log falling on the ground and the excited cheers and chants of the audience. At least that’s how it is at the Antigonish Highland Games.

“Stick toss” is athlete lingo for the caber. (Allan Lynch Photo)

Highland games are quietly noisy events. Their noise isn’t the kind that causes neighbours to call the police, it’s of physical exertion, competition and culture. There is the gentle thump, thump, thump of dancers’ feet as they twirl amid crossed swords lain on the stage. The hum and squeal of bagpipes, the boom and rat-tat-tat of bass and tenor drums, the grunts and groans of the tug-of-rope competition, screams of their supporters and the prolonged yells of a heavy athlete either twirling in a cage to throw the Scottish hammer, a stone or building momentum for the caber toss.

As if the size wasn’t enough of a challenge, cabers come in a variety of finishes, weights and woods. (Allan Lynch Photo)

Attending the Antigonish Highland Games taught me so much about these ancient competitions. The Games were like being dropped into a Celtic bubble. Walking Antigonish’s main street I heard people speaking Gaelic. Signs leading to Columbus Field, where the games are held, are in Gaelic. And throughout the town are monuments and plaques to the area’s Scottish heritage.

At Columbus Field I first encountered a dance pavilion where pixie-size competitors in tiny tartans did nymph-like steps in unison across the stage. Their focus, discipline and precision is all the more impressive given their young ages. Next is an all-things Celtic commercial encampment selling everything from tartans, kilts, pipes, odd-looking bagpipe carrying cases, to bumper stickers showing a distinctly Scottish bias: ‘If it’s nay Scottish it’s crrr-ap’; ‘Have pipes will travel’; and ‘On the eighth day God created bagpipes’.

As the oldest such games outside Scotland, Antigonish can be forgiven their bias.

There is a stunning amount of strategy to the tug-of-war. (Allan Lynch Photo)

Lining one side of the dirt track, which encompasses the athletic field, tug-of-war-ers engage in what sometimes seems like a semi-static struggle. An announcer shifts from his calm observation, “The hands are beginning to burn now,” to an excited scream, “They’ve done it! They’re moving! It’s a flip!” With this, coaches bark orders to their team, water boys race along the line pouring water on heads and necks, while the pullers’ groaning increases, dust rises and spectators are bent forward in their seats or standing in the bleachers screaming their support quickly switching to cheers and applause when one team finally prevails and leaving the other in the dust.

Every aspect of the games is governed by strict rules and/or strategy. St. Andrews Ladies’ coach, Glen VanVonderen explains that in Tug of War, they use a two-and-three-quarter-inch-thick burlap rope since acrylic rope becomes too slippery for sweaty hands to hold. Rules don’t allow competitors to sit or dig their hands into the ground. He explains, “It’s all in technique. You’ve got to pull low. You can’t be wiggling your feet around. When you first start you gotta pull hard and then just kinda set in on the rope, kinda rest your hands, tuck the rope underneath your arm, and push in on it. You’re watching the other team to see if there’s a girl getting tired or starting to wear out. When that happens you switch and get down and dirty and pull, pull, pull.”

A heavy athlete in full flourish. (Allan Lynch Photo)

Over in the main field where athletes are competing in the traditional Scottish heavy events, there’s even more technique involved.

Not to take away from the other Games’ participants, but the heavy athletes are sort of the stars. Perhaps it’s because their events are both traditional and quirky.

What’s fascinating about the Games is how true they are to their roots. Whereas other major competitions, like the Olympics, have evolved in to a type of testament to science and invention in developing better equipment or costumes, Scottish heavy athletes, like generations before them, maintain a cultural purity. They compete in kilts, using irregular devices and real muscles, as opposed to gym-trained, designer muscles.

Four times Canadian and four-time World Masters Champion World and Senior Games Caber Champion Dirk Bishop from Perth-Andover explains that unlike other sporting events, Highland games have no uniformity in equipment. At each games a caber will vary in cut, tree type, length (20-to-26 feet long) and weight (100-to-150 pounds). It can range from spruce, fir to ironwood, “which is unbelievably heavy.” Bishop says, “Every caber has a different crook in it, the weight is different, the taper means a lot to it, how big the big end is compared to how small the small end is all mean something.”

Even the stones can vary. At one game they could throw smooth river stones,

Tiny dancers. (Allan Lynch Photo)

at another cement bricks of the correct weight. And there can be lots of injuries from splinters and scrapped skin, to cabers falling on tossers to broken limbs and ribs. For the hammer toss, athletes wear boots with spikes in the front that they dig into the ground for stability. It’s an invitation for injury.

The caber toss, also known as “stick turning” by competitors, is judged on several elements: whether it goes end-over-end, how straight the caber falls and the angle the caber reaches.

Bishop’s technique, which he likens to trying to balance a baseball bat from the narrow end, he learned from his caber mentor, Doug MacDonald from the Annapolis Valley.

Real skill and muscle is required to compete with irregular devices, like river stones. (Allan Lynch Photo)

Other heavy events include the Braemar, heavy and light stone throws, 16 and 22 lb hammer tosses, a 56 lb weight for height, and 28 and 56 lb weight for distance throws. Highland Games eschew metric. They stick to the old rules and measures.

In a wooded corner off the playing field is Piper’s Glenn. It is bordered by a river where some non-kilted kayakers slowly paddle past the impromptu serenade provided by pipers and drummers who have positioned themselves along the riverbank to practice and warm up before facing a battery of judges for their solo competitions.

History suggests that games evolved from an ancient type of job interview. A clan chief would either host or attend a set of games to see who the fastest runners and strongest and best fighters were. These would become the chieftain’s messengers and bodyguards. The best pipers and dancers would provide his entertainment. More recently they have been a way to keep the culture alive.

Whatever their purpose, they’re a fun experience. And there’s a lot more to them than burly men in heritage drag.

 

 

More Games:

Dancers compete. Athletes compete. Pipers, drummers and pipe bands compete. (Allan Lynch Photo)

Highland Games also include evening ceilidhs, parades, massed bands, concerts and kilted golf. Some, like PEI’s, include sheepdog herding demos and Scottish country dance. Other communities hosting games include:

For 2017, the Antigonish Highland Games are technically held from July 2 to 9, but the actual competitions are July 7, 8 and 9. The Antigonish Games are the oldest, most authentic in North America. 2017 is their 154th games.

One of the trophies given out at the Antigonish Highland Games. (Allan Lynch Photo)

http://www.antigonishhighlandgames.ca

Festival of the Tartans and Highland Games, New Glasgow, July 12 – 16, 2017.

http://www.festivalofthetartans.ca

The New Brunswick Highland Games will be held in Fredericton, July 28 – 30, 2017.

http://highlandgames.ca

Glengary Highland Games are in Maxville, Ontario, August 4th and 5th:

https://glengarryhighlandgames.com

PEI Highland Games and Scottish Festival is scheduled for the Lord Selkirk Provincial Park, August 5th and 6th, 2017.

https://www.tourismpei.com/search/EventDetails/prod_id/24592/

Margaree Highland Games will be held August 11-13.

http://highlandgames.mfocc.ca

The Fergus Scottish Festival and Highland Games are also August 11-13 in Fergus, Ontario:

https://fergusscottishfestival.com

The North Lanark Highland Games are held August 26, 2017 in Almonte, Ontario:

http://www.almontehighlandgames.com

The Canmore Highland Games are September 2-3, 2017 in Canmore, Alberta:

http://canmorehighlandgames.ca

The Calgary Highland Games, which are over 100 years old, will be held September 2, 2017:

http://calgaryhighlandgames.org

For future reference, here are other games held in Canada:

The Victoria Highland Games & Celtic Festival, Vancouver Island, BC in May each year:

http://victoriahighlandgames.com/games/

The BC Highland Games and Scottish Festival are held in mid-June in Coquitlam, BC:

http://bchighlandgames.com

The Manitoba Highland Gathering is held in mid-June in Selkirk:

http://manitobahighlandgathering.org/home/

The Summerside Highland Gathering is late June in Summerside, PEI:

https://collegeofpiping.com