Northern Lights on a technicality

On Tuesday my Facebook feed was going a bit crazy with photos of aurora Australis and notifications of storm level aurora activity for the northern lights. Ever since we started making plans to come to Canada, seeing northern lights had been on my list of things to see. One of the top things in fact. We went to iceland and didn’t see any. Didn’t see any in Churchill either.

Two hours north of Toronto is the Torrance Barrens Dark Sky Reserve. There’s a page for it on Facebook and I follow them to keep track of what you can see from there, northern lights being one of them. Anyway, with the storm level so high on Tuesday, I kept an eye on the alerts but didn’t think we’d actually make the trek out to the dark sky preserve. Not unless it was highly likely we’d see something.

Besides, we had plans to go to the movies tonight to see Second Best Exptic Marigold Hotel with the neighbours. But just before Glen got home, I was looking at the aurora report again. ‘Storm Level!’ it shouted. ‘It’s on!’ Could this be too good an opportunity to miss? When Glen came home, we conferred and decided a road trip was in order. Julian was only too keen to head up there as well. We cancelled movie plans and at 7:30pm (after Glen went to get some road trip supplies from the supermarket), Julian, Nat, Glen and I set off on our adventure.

Distances don’t seem so bad here in Canada. While I’d seriously baulk at the idea of driving two hours to go somewhere (Bunbury springs to mind), it doesn’t seem like such a terrible idea here. Perhaps it’s because I’m not driving or that there’s the chance of seeing the Northern Lights at the end of it.

We headed off, stopping at one of the OnRoute places so we could get dinner (the first for Julian, second for the rest of us), and then continued into Muskoka. The dark sky preserve is a bit of a trek down a long, windy, bumpy road. In fact the road you take when you get off the freeway feels interminable. It’s also going into backwoods country and late at night, my imagination runs away with me. When a car’s headlights appear behind us, I imagine all sorts of nightmare scenarios.

Eventually we make it to the dark sky preserve. We pa so a car that’s parked on the road, then stop and check they’re ok. They were fine. They were looking at the Sky, saying there were a lot of cars in the car park and a lot of people so they were looking for somewhere quieter. Thanks to their comments, we were expecting a great horde of people at the preserve and I was preparing myself for a spectacular display.

When we pulled in there were about three cars there. And about as many people. Because it’s a dark sky preserve, there are no lights and people get shitty if you use any. We asked for directions on where to go and were given a vague idea so we headed north towards the lake. We went down a ditch and into some trees, not exactly a sensible thing to do. Apparently there’s a path. In the summer. At the moment the area is still covered with snow that disappears when you step anywhere and so you plummet up to your knees. Luckily Glen and I had ski pants on,

We then saw people coming from the direction we wanted to go and we realised we’d wandered completely off the path. We scrambled to the right spot, though it was still a massive effort to get anywhere as we kept plunging into the snow. We laughed and squealed a lot. The people we passed directed us where to go and they asked if we could keep the light down because one of the guy’s had his camera set up on a timer.

We’d missed the really big show. About 30 minutes to an hour before there was a lot of activity, with the lights reaching halfway up the sky. What a sight that would have been to behold! As it was we got to see a light greenish hue low on the horizon. Technically we have seen the Northern Lights though they were not doing what I’d hoped they would do, and it’s really only on the camera that you can make out the colour.

Nevertheless, I set up my camera and took a bunch of long exposure shots. I don’t have exactly the right equipment for this and there is a lot to improve on technique wise but for an idea of what was out there, and with the little we had to work with by that time, it’s acceptable. We stayed for perhaps 45 minutes. For all that it’s dubbed a dark sky preserve, it’s not all that dark. There are two dome-like glows on the horizon that signify sizable human settlements, which is a bit disappointing.

On the way back to the car, Glen and I talked to one of the guys and he told us how spectacular it had been earlier. His friend was showing up in a minute and had given him news that it was supposed to be peaking again. I thought it would just be our luck for it to shoot up after we left. However, looking at the aurora reports on the way home made it seem that the storm was over for this part of the country.

More people arrived as we left. I saw their heavy duty camera equipment being taken out of their car as we drove out of the car park. I don’t have anywhere near what they have, and really, I’d much rather see the lights dance than try to take photos of them.

It was a quiet ride home as Nat and Glen fell asleep. Julian valiantly got us home safely, which was a big effort considering he’d worked all day too. We got back into Toronto at around 2, dropped Nat home and then went back to our condo and to bed.

Even though it wasn’t as spectacular as I’d hoped, I’m glad we went. It was a rare moment of spontaneity that, for nothing else, got us out of the city and looking up at the stars in a clear sky. I now know how to get to the preserve and don’t consider it as onerous as I once did so wouldn’t feel too shy about trying again another night if the conditions are right. And plus, we did, technically, see the Northern Lights. Next time will be better.

[The photos are a little misleading. The lights weren’t this green when we were there. They look like this because of the long exposure rate of the shots. Another guy got much better shots but he’s more experienced and has better equipment. For instance, his lens was better and his setup more sturdy – wind knocked my camera around a bit. Anyway, first attempt]

Double blacks to end the season

We woke up just after six to prepare for our last ski of the season. I’d laid everything out the day before so it didn’t take us long to shower, get dressed, shovel down some food and head down to Julian’s. He was waiting for us outside his apartment.

It rained on the drive up to York Mills subway station, and while Blue Mountain is a couple of hours drive north, I worried it was going to be not so pleasant on the hill. Considering how warm it had been in the city for the past week, I wondered if there’d be any snow on the hills at all.

There was only one bus going to the slopes today (normally there’s at least one). Even with only one bus, it wasn’t full. We slept for part of the way up and woke up to see green grass and slush on the ground. Would we find the hills similarly denuded?

We arrived at 9:30, got our lift tickets, hired our skis and went off for our first run before lessons started. The snow was slushy but at least there was still some snow to ski on. We were in a class with Julian and Umberto and had Paul as our instructor.

Because of the condition of the snow we were focusing on ‘carving’ and skiing on our edges. I think I got it. It took a while but I think I was starting to look the way I’m supposed to. Paul said I was on my edges plenty, just needed to slow down my turns. It was a pretty good lesson. We got rained and hailed on at the end so zoomed down the hill and into the lodge for lunch.

We’d brought tortellini in broth and various other bits and pieces to eat. Still, nothing really looks quite as good as the chips or chicken fingers other people buy from the cafe there. We abstained (but stole one of Julian’s chicken fingers).

At 2 the four of us went out for more skiing. We went to the other side of the mountain to try out the blacks. Most of us had never been to this part of the resort, probably because, apart from one blue, all the hills are black and double black. We manned up and went for it.

It turned out to be not as terrifying as we expected. The resort wasn’t that busy and these hills were practically empty. Yes, they were steeper than we’re used to but they weren’t unconquerable, and they didn’t last long. We did a couple of blacks and a couple of double blacks. There were a few falls (though I’m happy one of them wasn’t mine) but we all got down the hills in our own particular way and were keen to go again.

While Glen is cautious and prefers to traverse across the hills to keep himself slow and secure, I prefer to just point my skis down the hill and swish left and right in an attempt to look like a good skier. Good or not, I love going fast and maintaining a reasonably good stance makes me feel even better.

After our adventures on the hard hills, our legs were starting to get tired so we navigated our way back to the other side of the mountain, taking lifts up and hills down like some giant game of snakes and ladders. Finally we reached the lodge, returned our skis, put our normal shoes back on, decompressed for a bit then got on the bus.

So that’s our last ski for the season. The next two weekends are taken up and unless there’s a sudden polar vortex coming for us (knock on wood) the snow is likely to be all gone soon and the ski club stop doing trips.

The next time we ski will probably be in Japan next year, unless by some miracle we manage to fit it in sooner. Walking back to the bus, I was a little saddened to think that it’s unlikely, though not impossible, that we’ll ski in Ontario again. Not that the skiing is fantastic but it’s where we learned and holds happy memories. There are going to be a lot more of those ‘last time’ moments over the next few months. How lucky we are to have done so much.

Once back in Toronto, Glen, Julian and I went for noodles in Markham. It was busier than the last time we were there. It took a while to get food. I didn’t like it as much this time around but left feeling full. Now for a night on the couch.

Skiing Georgian Peaks

On Wednesday I went skiing with the North Toronto Ski Club at Georgian Peaks. So it was an early morning rise at 6:15am (ok, not that early for most people but it was for me), got ready and caught the subway up to York Mills. The bus arrived soon after and then a short two hours later we arrived.
Today was my first day skiing in level five. There were a lot of instructors so class sizes were small. I had Ken as my instructor and it was an excellent lesson. He went over pretty much the same things that I’ve been told by previous instructors (weight on the downhill ski, stance, upper-lower body separation and the like) but it seemed to come together a bit better today. After Saturday’s frustrating day I was a little concerned that Wednesday’s skiing was going to be hell.

We spent most of our time on the long green but that was fine as it meant I slowed down a bit and could focus on technique. Ken was pretty happy with the way I was skiing and I must say, I was too. No progression to the next level yet but it wasn’t expected. We finished the lesson with a blue and I had fun going fast down this steep slope. (Georgian Peaks has the highest altitude slopes out of all the clubs in the region.)

We finished at 12:15 and went back to the clubhouse for lunch. It was just as well as the clouds rolled in, blotting out the sun, and it was impossible to determine any definition in the snow on the hill. It was just flat and grey.

For lunch I ate chicken risotto and chicken vegetable casserole which I’d cooked the night before. They went down a treat. Didn’t stop me from buying a cookie.

After lunch, I went out for a few runs, warming up on the green then doing a couple of blues, but again the sun hid its face and I felt really uncertain going down the slopes. I also thought my technique was starting to come unstuck as I was overthinking things. Plus I was getting tired so I went in and packed up for the afternoon. It wasn’t all that disappointing as I’d had a good morning, and what with there being few people out there today and no queues at the chairlifts, we got in quite a few runs.

The ski bus left at 4:30 and we headed back to Toronto. It was well and truly dark by the time the bus arrived at York Mills, and it had snowed too. Got home at 7:30. Going to sleep well tonight.

Our first time tobogganing

Because of our late night, I stayed in bed until half eleven on Monday and only got up when it was time to get ready to go tobogganing — an event much discussed ever since it started to get cold. (It was a public holiday on Monday in Ontario.) We got ready, went downstairs and collected Julian and then went to Bec and Alastair’s. There was a bit of a delay as water was coming through the roof of the bathroom in their apartment. Once the concierge had been to investigate, they got ready and we went downstairs to Julian’s car.

Returning from the bottom of the hill

Returning from the bottom of the hill

We didn’t have to drive far. There’s a park called Riverdale Park just over the Don Valley Parkway and down Broadview. We were all rugged up in our ski gear and wearing plenty of warm layers. It was probably about -15°C but thankfully there was no wind or else it would have felt much colder.

We parked and discovered we weren’t the only ones who had the idea of going tobogganing on what was a beautiful clear winter’s day. Julian was our test dummy as he’s the Canadian and done this before, but once we saw how it was done (honestly, it’s not hard. You sit in the toboggan and try not to crack your head open), we were all zooming down the hill in a variety of permutations.

Sitting upright, on our stomachs, lying back, two-and-three to a toboggan, or one lying on top of the other. Bec and I managed to go the farthest using the red toboggans and sitting rigid and upright as we went down. The hill had a lot of bumps in it so the ride was jarring at times, and I screamed through most of the journey down with a high-pitched ‘eeeeeeeeeee’. We also had races which were a lot of fun, if at times a bit dangerous. I nearly clipped Alastair during one of them, missing him by a whisker before I zoomed down to the bottom. It was a hell of a lot of fun. The only downside: having to walk up the hill again. At least it kept us warm.

After about an hour, we called it quits and went to Rooster Coffee House to warm up and have a drink and some snacks. We then headed home.

Glen, Julian and I went for Korean BBQ down the road. Not my favourite, but Glen seemed to enjoy himself. I was started to fall asleep at the table and was happy to head home. Glen went off to work for a while, and Julian went and did errands.

I worked on a video of my trip to Newfoundland (see below) while finishing watching The Killing (not a bad ending) and started The Fall (a crime drama set in Belfast with Gillian Anderson). I’m going to miss Netflix when we go home.

(I’ll put together a video of us tobogganing eventually.(

Valentine’s Day skiing

Up at 6:15 so we could skiing at Blue Mountain with the ski club. We picked up Julian at quarter to seven, got in the car, drove to York Mills and got on the bus.

It’s Bec’s birthday today so I was itching to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ on the bus but knew I’d be slaughtered if I started such a thing. We were a big join today. Apart from us, Bec and Al, and Julian, we had Umberto and Hassan, Donna and Sarah, and Doreinne and Rob (Glen works with D and she and Rob had never skied before so they did beginner lessons).

We were all a bit apprehensive about how cold it was going to be on the hill. It’s been bitterly cold in Toronto the past few days and Blue Mountain promised to be worse. It was snowing when we arrived and I was glad I’d put on long johns under my ski pants.

We rented skis then went out and joined a group for our lesson. Level four yet again. There was a plethora of instructors for level four so we had small groups. Julian, Glen and I went with an instructor called James, and then we added another member on the ski lift so we were four.

It was a tough lesson. Not at all enjoyable but very challenging. I was learning how to just turn my legs and not my body or my butt. Very difficult when that’s what you’ve been doing for a while. I was on the verge of packing it in but stuck with it and was starting to come good by the end of the lesson. The best news of the day though was being promoted in level five. Glen, Julian, Bec and I all got bumped up a level. Yay!

We went inside for lunch and staked a claim on a table and dragged over 12 chairs. The place was busy but we had our own on a group of kids who looked like they were about ready to go. We jumped in there and got it. I’d made chicken pie the night before at Glen’s request so we heated that up for a yummy lunch. Bec bought slice. We gave her her present. Umberto brought a cake and FINALLY we got to sing. And it was a quiet singing either. We were loud enough to attract other voices and clapping. I think Bec was secretly pleased, even if she did go red 🙂

Glen, Julian, Umberto and I went for a bit of a ski in the afternoon but we didn’t stay out long. The ski lifts kept stopping and starting so the queues were long and slow. Visibility was poor. We went down a blue run that was all moguls and I took a few tumbles. I think I’ve hurt my shoulder. After doing four runs, Glen, Julian and I went inside. Just about everyone else was there too.

So I wasn’t a very happy skier by the end of the day, not just because I didn’t get many runs in, but because by the end it felt like ALL my technique had come undone and I could barely get down the hill. I’m going again on Wednesday and I’m hoping I don’t have as hard a time of it then.

Once we got back to Toronto, Julian drove us and Bec and Al to Markham for dinner at a Chinese restaurant called Phoenix. Markham is THE place to go for good Asian food, something we haven’t found much of in downtown Toronto. We ordered a bunch of dishes, had a fun and good waitress, and proceeded to gorge ourselves. I liked the kuay teow best but the Hainan chicken rice was also good. We’ll probably go back.

In the car on the way home we checked the weather report. Tonight it’s meant to ‘feel like’ -42°C. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it that cold. Glad I’m inside now.

A great day skiing

I struggled out of bed Saturday morning, even worse than I normally do. I had taken an age to fall asleep so waking up at 6:30 was a bit tough. I eventually got moving, showered, dressed in my ski gear and shoved my contacts in. Can I just say, putting contacts in while your eyes have barely woken up feels awful.

Glen and I walked to the subway station. It was snowing in Toronto as it was at the hill. It was going to be a great day for skiing. We caught the subway to York Mills, the coach arrived shortly after and we boarded with Umberto. Bec and Al had saved us seats. We settled in and set off.

The coach drove slower than usual up to Mount St Louis Moonstone because the roads were icy. Smart move. We arrived at about 9:15/9:30. Glen and I hired skis, stowed our stuff and got outside with time to get in two runs before the lesson.

It wasn’t busy at that time of the morning, which was excellent for the queues on the lifts. The snow was lovely and soft and fresh. It was a pleasure to ski through it. We did two runs on some greens then skied down to where the lessons commenced.

Glen, Bec and I are all in level four. There were a lot of fours so we nominated ourselves as being more advanced than the average level four and got grouped together with our instructor, Ahmed. We also had a Danish bloke called Kim (who was gorgeous) join us.

Ahmed took us to some greens so we could practise an exercise whereby we had to pump our inside ski up and down while turning so as to force us to balance and put all our weight on the downhill ski. From pumping (we looked like rabbits) we moved to lifting then holding up our leg (like a dog peeing in a way) and from there to just raising it a couple of millimetres off the ground.

I found it an incredibly useful exercise and my last couple of normal runs for the lesson felt great. The three of us finished feeling very positive about our lesson. It’s been a while since I’ve had one where I came away feeling like I learned something,

We went in for lunch at 12. Bec and Al brought their little camp stove thing to heat up a proper stew type meal. Glen and I had baguette with ham/turkey and accompaniments. I’d also made Anzac biscuits the day before. I’d made them with gluten free flour (because of Al) but because they lacked the binding agent, the ended up spread out on the tray and very thin. They looked like brandy snaps and could almost be made into biscuits. Despite their appearance, they tasted delicious. Can’t go wrong with three types of sugar.

We stuffed our faces and rested for a couple of hours before hitting the slopes again. I think we covered all black and blue runs on both sides of the ‘mountain’. We also went over to the terrain park as Al and Umberto were keen to do it. Bec and Glen didn’t try it but I had a go. The first jump was fine. The second I stacked it and lost my skis. The guy behind did too because he couldn’t manoeuvre around me. I got it on film. I’m glad I gave it a go, even if it wasn’t successful from start to finish.

Bec, Glen and Al skied until just after 4, while Umberto and I got in a couple more runs before 4:30. It was getting dark by then and we were getting tired so we went in. It hadn’t stopped snowing all day so it was a great day to be out there.

We ate more food afterwards, mostly bad things like biscuits and toblerone, and played a game of Sushi, Go! before boarding the coach at 5:30 and leaving at 6. It took quite a while to get home because the coach went very slowly on snow covered roads. I wore my seatbelt.

We arrived home at about 8, ate leftovers and watched some tv before climbing into bed seeking rest.

My first ski of the season

Glen woke up very early this morning, and thus I woke up too, a lot earlier than I would have liked for skiing. I managed to get back to sleep for perhaps 20 minutes and then it was time to get up, dress in ski gear, eat breakfast and go.

Last year we only had a few bits of ski paraphernalia, clothes mainly, however, this year we have our own helmet and ski boots, which made for a different feel to last year’s skiing. I set off at 6:30 to catch the subway up to York Mills, loaded up with my ski equipment bag (containing boots, helmet, gloves, mask, goggles and warmers) and a backup with lunch, another jacket, printed chapters of my book to edit, and my iPad.

Exiting at York Mills Subway Station with a bunch of other people from the ski club, I went upstairs, bought a green tea (it was pretty cold walking to the subway station) and milled around waiting for the bus to arrive. When it came at about 7:20, I jumped on with my stuff and found a seat. Luckily there weren’t many people and there was space to put the ski boots bag. I don’t know what we’re going to do on the weekends when the buses are full. Will probably have to rest it on my lap.

Next to me, I had Emily, one of the organizers and an instructor I’d had before. We chatted intermittently through the one and a half hour journey. She’d just been to Brisbane and so we talked a bit about that. She agreed with me that the Canadian winter was preferable to the sweltering Australian summer. She’s English though so that might have something to do with it. I was also meant to edit some chapters but I couldn’t find my pen, so I played Ticket to Ride on the iPad instead.

Cold wind and snow pelted me when I got off the bus. I hired skis and poles, excited that I was getting to use my ski boots for the first time and didn’t have to hum and hah over whether the hired boots fit properly.

After I got my skis, I hurried inside. Emily on the bus had been saying how cold it was meant to be today and made me anxious by saying how many layers she had on. In comparison I only had my ski pants, my base layer and my ski jacket. Would I freeze on the hill? I put my boots on and everything else then went outside, joined a level four group and got on the chair lift to the top.

My goggles froze over in the first few minutes, so my worry that I might have forgotten how to ski was compounded by the fact that I could barely see where I was going. Thankfully, I remembered a lot of what I’d learned last year and was able to get down the hill without major incident. In fact, it felt like I’d never been off skis at all.

Every time I got to the bottom of the hill, I attempted to scrape or melt the ice off my goggles. This required me to pull of the goggles, which meant the area around my eyes got really cold (I was worried about frostbite), and then I needed at least one ungloved hand to wipe off the crystals. My fingers hurt. Then getting back on the ski lift to the top, my goggles froze up again and I went down the hill blind once more. There were a few times where I just had to suffer the cold and remove my goggles completely. It was at least -19C (probably more with windchill) so it wasn’t pleasant, especially not with snow shooting into my eyes.

The instructor I had, John, was very good. There were only two of us in his group, me and Diana. He gave me a few things to work on, which I’m hoping I can sort out over this season at least. The conditions today were highly unusual for Toronto so there wasn’t much opportunity for advancement. I also fell over a few times, but being powder, it was actually a lot of fun.

Our lesson finished at 12, and I was very grateful to get inside. The last hill I was on I just pointed my skis downhill and went really fast because I wanted to get out of the cold. I ate my packed lunch and then decided against rushing back out to ski again. I stayed in and edited some chapters, went out for one quick ski (my goggles had fogged by the end of the short run) and then returned my skis and got ready for the bus ride home.

Our bus left at 4:30, driving very slowly along snowy roads. It got dark pretty quickly. We arrived back at York Mills at about half six and then I caught the subway home, and took a dip in the hot tub (my right hip is a bit sore, more from the gym yesterday than from exerting myself today). We’re going skiing this weekend so I’m glad I had today as a bit of a dummy run and to make sure I can still ski. Bring on the rest of the season.