Mental illness, medication, and the elephant in the room


Mental illness has always been the elephant in whatever room you’re in. Many people know someone who suffers from it but are still uncomfortable talking about it. The words “crazy” and “wacko” are often still used to describe people with mental illness – not exactly conducive to open discussion and helping people admit that they are struggling. But it’s worse than that because other than perhaps bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, many mental illnesses are looked at as something that you can overcome if you just try hard enough.

People with depression are told that they should just not be so sad all the time and think about all the good things in their lives. People with anxiety should try to relax and not get so worked up about things. Many think that ADHD doesn’t even exist because everyone gets distracted now and again. Mental illness is seen as a weakness of character, not an actual illness. On the other hand, people with more physical ailments such as cancer or MS are always described as courageous and strong and are given as much support as they need. Nobody suggests that people who are deaf or blind should just work harder and concentrate more and then they’ll be fine.

Bell Let’s Talk day is a day in January every year when Bell Canada donates money for each social media post that uses the #BellLetsTalk hashtag. Since 2010, Bell has donated over $80 million to various mental health initiatives. I see hundreds of tweets on those days talking about mental illness, and it seems that it’s something that many people secretly (and not-so-secretly) battle with, or know someone who does. (I’ve also seen people who refuse to participate, thinking it’s a big ad campaign for Bell Canada. Maybe it is, but who cares? If they’re donating millions to charity and getting people to openly talk about mental health because of it, I’m happy to give them some free advertising.) You also see lots of Facebook posts and blog articles by and about people who suffer from depression, schizophrenia, anxiety, and many other mental illnesses, discussing how they cope and how and where they get help. A lot of people feel empowered and courageous enough to “come out” and publicly admit and discuss their illness, and I think this is fantastic. At the end of January, everyone’s on board and it gives one hope that the stigma is finally on the way out.

The rest of the year is a different story. That’s not to say that everyone reverts back to “crazy people are just weak minded” but for many, the stigma comes back. And I’m sure many don’t even know it.


ADHDMy two kids were each diagnosed with ADHD around grade four (for posterity, Ryan’s currently in grade twelve and Nicky grade nine), and both have been taking daily medication since their diagnosis. The medications have changed over the years as well as the dosages, but both still take it every day. Gail and I are not embarrassed by this and neither are the boys; it’s just part of life for them. It’s never been a “family secret”, though I did confirm with them that they are OK with me explicitly making it public here. The medication helps them to be more focused and more able to tune out distractions. Nicky can also get “fidgety” and it helps with that as well. It doesn’t turn them into perfect children, nor do we expect it to. And it does not turn them into zombies, at least not any more than any other teenager with a smartphone.

Note that ADHD is a real condition and fMRI scans can show real physical differences between the ADHD brain and the “normal” brain. Nobody is saying that any kid who ever gets distracted has ADHD and needs medication, any more than anyone who ever gets sad about anything has depression and needs medication. The “disorder” part means that it happens far more often than in other people – often enough to negatively affect your day-to-day life.

Anyway, like I said, their ADHD and medication are not secret and so now and again the topic comes up in conversation with family members, friends, co-workers, and occasionally even strangers. When it does, I am amazed at how often people ask about the meds. Do they take the medication every day? Do they take it on weekends or over the summer when they’re not in school? Will they have to take it for the rest of their lives? I constantly wonder why people are so interested in my kids’ medication schedule.

Of course, they’re not interested in when they take it, they’re interested that they take it. I’m sure some are just curious but I frequently feel judged, as if they’re asking “You don’t give your children prescription drugs for such a mild condition, do you? And every day?!” I’ve even had people, including family members, directly suggest that maybe they shouldn’t be taking the medication.

In many cases, these are the same people who post supportive messages on Bell Let’s Talk day, the whole point of which is to end the stigma associated with mental illness. But suggesting that my kids stop taking their medication IS the stigma. You are suggesting that the medication is not necessary because they should be able to overcome their illness through sheer will. That’s just not how it works.

Gail and I are both insulin-dependent type 2 diabetics. Nobody has ever asked me if we take our insulin or other diabetes medications every day or on weekends, and nobody has ever suggested we try not taking it. Similarly, if you have migraines or chronic back pain, pain medication is a lifesaver and nobody who’s ever had either of these would suggest to someone else suffering with it that maybe they should skip their medication and try something else to cope with the pain. It seems that we all know that “Try distracting yourself so you don’t think about it!” is not going to work on a migraine, but some think that will work on depression.

I’ve seen images on Facebook talking about the number of children in the US diagnosed with ADHD and that half of them are on medication, as if that’s a source of shame. Think of the number of kids diagnosed with leukemia; 100% of them are on medication and nobody’s ashamed of that.

Of course I’m not saying that everyone with ADHD or depression should be on medication. I’m sure there are many people who have developed coping techniques for their illnesses and don’t need medication, but that’s just not possible for everyone. If you suggest to those people (or their parents) that maybe they don’t need it and maybe they should try not taking it, you are not helping. You are contributing to the belief that mental illnesses are not real illnesses and can be overcome by simply working harder. They can’t. So please stop.

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Mike Pence, Matt Walsh, respect, and trust


A Christian conservative blogger named Matt Walsh posted an article to Facebook (and something to his blog as well) the other day in support of VP Mike Pence. I’ll let Mr. Walsh describe it himself:

I decided to check the headlines tonight and this is the “news story” I saw being reported by dozens of outlets. You see, Vice President Pence will not eat a meal alone with a woman other than his wife, and the media wants us to realize that this is a humongous scandal. Many of the mindless hyenas on Twitter have been cackling about it, because apparently it’s hilarious and bizarre for a married man to forgo dinner dates with other women.

Well, I confess that my wife and I must join the puritan club with Mr. and Mrs. Pence, because neither of us would go out for a meal alone with a member of the opposite sex, either (other than family, of course). In fact, I would go so far as to say that a married man shouldn’t be hanging out with another woman one-on-one in almost any situation, whether there’s a meal involved or not. I’m radical like that, I guess.

Mr. Pence and his wife (as well as Mr. Walsh and his wife) have agreed that neither will eat with someone of the opposite sex without the other one there. I don’t have a problem with that. It’s their marriage and far be it from me to tell someone else how they should conduct their marriage (though Mr. Pence has no trouble doing that). But the implication that the Pences and Walshes are invariably right and anyone who disagrees is wrong is so condescending and holier-than-thou it’s scary.

From his blog article on the same subject:

Listen to the vets who’ve been in it for 20 or 30 years or longer. You’ll find that the vast majority of them would agree with Pence, or, at the very least, understand his approach and respect it.

How does he know the “vast majority” of long-married couples would agree? Sounds to me like the old echo chamber is rearing its ugly head again – he writes a conservative Christian blog, and the majority of his readers are probably conservative Christians too and thus agree with him. But he seems to think that their views match those of the general public. Maybe they do and maybe they don’t, but unless you’ve got some actual evidence, you can’t just go asserting things like that.

…if you have no boundaries other than “don’t cheat,” you’ve set yourself up for failure. Inevitably, if cheating is your only boundary, even it will eventually be crossed. …We must take active and purposeful steps to protect ourselves from stumbling into sin and betrayal. If we take no such steps, we are much closer to doing the thing “we would never do” than we’d care to admit or imagine.

Speak for yourself, pal.

Frankly, when I have some time to myself, I much prefer to either spend it alone, reading or fishing or something, or with male friends who I share a fraternal bond with. A man can’t have that kind of bond with a woman. It’s an absurd proposition.

Why the hell not?

Gail and I celebrated our 21st wedding anniversary last October, so that makes me a vet in Walsh’s view.  By “understand his approach and respect it”, I suppose that’s arguably correct in that I don’t think Pence is an idiot for having this pact with his wife. What I really disagree with is the implication that because he (Walsh) thinks this way, that’s the correct way of thinking. On his blog Walsh has the various taglines “Absolute truths”, “Christian columnist and political incendiary Matt Walsh is an extremist — if truth is extreme”, and “Matt Walsh is a blogger, writer, and professional sayer of truths.” How cocky do you have to be to post your opinions and call them objective truth? If that statement was there once, then OK, I might believe he meant it jokingly. But three times?

We’ve reached full Idiocracy, folks. Prudence and wisdom are openly mocked. And mocked, I should mention, mostly by people who’ve never been married or never managed to stay married. You’d be hard pressed to find someone in a successful and stable marriage who thinks it’s silly for spouses to have policies like this.

<Raises hand> Again, if we’re splitting hairs, I suppose he’s technically correct. Do I think it’s silly to have such a policy in your marriage? No, but is it necessary? Also no. At least not for everyone.

I’ve been married to my wonderful wife for over twenty years and we are very happy, thank you very much. I have many female friends and I have had one-on-one meals with a few of them. Gail’s known about such meals when they’ve happened and never batted an eye because she trusts me. Similarly she’s done the same with male friends, and it never bothered me either because I trust her.

In fact, the policy is so obvious that it shouldn’t even need to be stated out loud. Only ridiculous and immature people who have no concept of how husbands and wives should operate could possibly laugh at a married couple for actually respecting each other, as the Pences clearly do.

I don’t see how “you can’t go for dinner alone with Bob because you might end up sleeping with him” is showing her respect. Similarly, “I promise not to go out for dinner alone with any woman because I might end up sleeping with her” isn’t showing respect. How about “I promise not to sleep with anyone else”? You said that as part of your marriage vows – isn’t that enough? If you have to make other rules to make sure you don’t break that one, what’s stopping you from breaking the “I won’t eat lunch with another woman” rule?

Personally, I have no desire to go out with women other than my wife. I have no desire to maintain friendships with women.

Good for you. But don’t presume to speak for all men, and don’t pretend that your opinion is somehow more valuable than anyone else’s. I do have friendships with women that I want to maintain. These friendships are threats to neither my marriage nor theirs.

Have there been people who did stray from their marriage vows in such a situation? I’m sure there have been many. Maybe for those people, avoiding such a situation would have been a good idea. But don’t assume that everyone is at similar risk. Does Mr. Walsh prevent Mrs. Walsh from going to Wal-Mart by herself just in case the feeling of shoplifting comes over her, even if she’s never stolen anything in her life? To paraphrase Mr. Walsh’s own blog, “Do you believe your spouse is literally impervious to the sin of theft? If you do, please tell us how you managed to climb to Heaven and marry an archangel.”

Matt Walsh whines about his values being openly mocked while openly mocking the values of those who disagree with him. I’m not mocking anyone except Walsh. If you want to make that agreement with your spouse and you both honour it, good for you. But don’t imply that those of us who have not made that agreement must (a) be philanderers, (b) have unhappy marriages, or worse (c) not know as much about marriage as Matt Walsh, the Speaker of Truth™.

This whole article doesn’t even touch the other big issue here. It’s fine for Walsh and his wife to make this kind of pact, but Mike Pence is the Vice President of one of the most powerful countries in the world. If he refuses to be alone with a woman who isn’t his wife, what are the odds he’s going to hire women for important roles in his administration? We already know that both Pence and Trump think of women as second-class citizens, so it shouldn’t be surprising that they won’t be hiring many. But isn’t it possible that the Chancellor of Germany needs to have a private meeting with Pence at some point? Is he really going to cancel the meeting if his wife can’t be there? Does the Vice President of the Unites States really need a fucking chaperone?

The echo chamber


When I first joined Facebook over ten years ago, I though it would be a fun little diversion. Over time, it turned into a invaluable communications tool, particularly with friends and family far away. I have a number of friends who have moved to Alberta, BC, and the US and I’m sure that without Facebook, I would have lost touch with many of them. I also grew up thousands of miles away from my cousins in Scotland and England (and later, Australia) and so I don’t know them very well, but I’m able to touch base with them and get to know them, to some extent, thanks to Facebook. I’m sure this is the case for hundreds of millions of other people worldwide.

One great thing about Facebook is that it allows you have direct conversations with your friends and also see what they’re talking about with other people. But that’s also a bad thing about Facebook. You see what your friends are saying and what their friends are saying, but nobody else. This sounds like what you would want. I want to hear and discuss my friends’ opinions on things. And why would I want to hear some random guy’s opinions on things if I don’t know him?

EchoChamberBut by definition, your friends’ world views are generally similar to yours (or they wouldn’t be your friends), and their friends’ views are generally similar to theirs. Of course everyone’s different and friends can have different views on things but more often than not, you find yourself agreeing with your friends on many issues. This is not limited to Facebook – it also applies to Twitter, Instagram, and other social networks. Oh, and real life too.

The problem here is that social networks in general become what’s known as an echo chamber. When you post an opinion and see nothing but agreement, you start to think that this is a popular opinion, or even a consensus. But you’re only seeing your friends’ opinions and since most of your friends think the way you do, you are getting a skewed view of the population.

Take the most recent US election as an example. For months before the election, I saw many postings from friends talking about what a terrible choice Donald Trump would be for President, and I posted many such opinions myself. I saw some postings arguing the other way, but those were mostly reposts from my friends, along with a comment on how misguided the original posters were. I saw almost no pro-Trump postings directly from anyone I knew. In fact, I can only think of one person on my Facebook friends list who posted anything positive about Donald Trump. As a result, I started to believe that the vast majority of people were against Trump, and thus Hillary Clinton would win the election in a landslide.

Imagine my surprise.

Well, you probably don’t have to imagine, since the election results seemed to take everyone by surprise, whether they supported Clinton, Trump, or neither one. Since then, it’s been one surprise after another, though it really shouldn’t be since Trump is doing exactly what he told everyone he would do if elected. Many people, myself include, just couldn’t believe he’d actually get the chance, thanks to the echo chamber.

Did this actually affect the election’s outcome? Perhaps the Trump supporters were so determined to have a non-politician in the White House that they turned out in droves to vote. Meanwhile the Hillary supporters were so deeply embedded in their echo chambers that they didn’t think they had to. It sounds plausible but I’m not sure about it – after all, Trump supporters would have been living in an echo chamber of their own.

I don’t pretend to have a good solution for this problem. On Twitter, I do follow Donald Trump himself (both his personal account and @POTUS) just to see what he’s talking about. Before the election it was a source of humour because he couldn’t possibly win. Since the election, his tweets have been more of a source of anger and fear and usually make me shake my head, but I haven’t unfollowed. I did recently notice that a fairly prominent lacrosse coach was a Trump supporter, and I unfollowed him. He didn’t tweet much anyway so it wasn’t a huge deal. But by doing this I was simply strengthening my echo chamber, something I didn’t think of at the time. Maybe I need to revisit that strategy.

The greatest President since Obama


President-elect Donald Trump repeatedly said during the campaign that he’d immediately repeal “Obamacare” if elected. After the election, Trump met with President Obama and subsequently backed down on this, saying that there are parts of it that he likes. Maybe President Obama explained some of the finer details of Obamacare to Mr. Trump, who had never really understood them before, and having more information changed his mind. It’s good to know Mr. Trump has an open mind, and is willing to change it given evidence. I wonder what else might he change his mind on, given a conversation with the right people?


Secretary: Mr. President, the President of Mexico is here and would like to speak with you.
Trump: OK, show him in.

(two hours later)

Trump: My fellow Americans, I have decided to cancel the Mexican Wall project.


Secretary: Mr. President, there are forty-seven climate scientists here to meet with you. They have letters from hundreds of others.
Trump: Sure, I have a few minutes before my tee time.

(two hours later)

Trump: Hey Mike, find that EPA guy I hired and fire him. No wait, firing people is my specialty. Get him in here.


Secretary: Mr. President, the ghost of Martin Luther King, Jr. is here and wants a word.
Trump: What the heck does he want? OK.

(two hours later)

Trump: Hey Mike, we need to cancel that whole “Camp Islam” thing we talked about.


Secretary: Mr. President, Dr. King is back again, he forgot to tell you something.
Trump: Wow, busy day. Sure, send him in.

(ten minutes later)

Trump: Mike, you’re fired.


A week later, Trump invites Hillary Clinton to replace Mike Pence as his vice-president and hires Neil deGrasse Tyson as his chief science advisor. Four years later, the US is a beacon of prosperity, multiculturalism, peace, and harmony. Unemployment is the lowest it’s been in fifty years. The third season of Cosmos made the NFL move Sunday night football because their ratings just couldn’t compete. America is leading the way with renewable energy solutions and the climate isn’t warming quite as fast as before. NASA’s budget has been doubled and there are projects underway to send Americans back to the Moon and to Mars. President Trump is re-elected in one of the biggest landslides in history.

Four years after that, he leaves office with a 96% approval rating. Trump closes his hotel in New York City and turns it into the biggest Presidential Library in the country.

 

And then I woke up.

Nicky learns to debug


Nicky came with me to work this past Wednesday for “Take your kid to work day”. Not only did he see first hand what I do, he even helped me do it.

I showed him the “Database Explorer” software that I’m helping to develop for the next version of SAP HANA. It allows you, among many other things, to execute arbitrary SQL statements against any HANA database. But before he would have any idea what that was good for, I had to tell him what a database was. I simplified it to: a database is a collection of data stored in tables, where a table has a bunch of columns and each column has a type (i.e. text, numbers, dates, etc.). As an example, we created a table called “person”, with columns like “name”, “height”, “weight”, and “birthdate”. I inserted a row for Nicky and one for me.

Then I showed him how we can use the SELECT statement to get the data back. So “select * from person” shows both of us, with our names, heights, weights, and… incorrect birthdates. Each date was off by one day. Hmmm… that’s weird. Perhaps I made a typo on one of them, but not likely both. I updated a row and double-checked the birthdate but when I retrieved the data again, it was still wrong. OK, well, guess what Nick? We get to look through the code, find the error, and fix it. This is what I do.

I knew where the data retrieval code was, so Nicky and I looked it up and found where we get the data from the database and format it for display. I added some code to print out the value we retrieved and found that we were actually retrieving the correct date. This meant that it had nothing to do with the insertion process, and that the database itself wasn’t involved. Then I added a line that displayed the value again after we formatted it and found that it was wrong. So it was definitely our formatting code that was to blame.

Debugging

This is written in Javascript, and we were creating a Date object from the original value. We looked up what the Date constructor expects, and found that the format we were passing in was incorrect. Then we parsed the year, month, and day out of the date and used those directly to create the Date object. We fired it up again, and presto, it worked. High five, Nick.

Our next task was to write a barrier test. We have a suite of automated tests that run and must pass before anyone is allowed to make any changes to any piece of code. This is to make sure that nobody ever makes a change in the future that causes existing functionality to stop working. I knew there was a file that contained tests for many different data types, so I loaded that up to add a test for dates. Oddly, I found that there was one already there, but commented out. Then I read the comment, which stated that the test was failing but the author didn’t know why, so he was temporarily disabling it until later when he had some time to figure it out. The comment was signed “gperrow”.

I enabled the test, corrected one typo, and presto, we have a fixed bug and a barrier test. High five, Nick.

Nick said that between the bug squashing (he prefers that term to “debugging”) and playing with the Arduino and 3D printer in the morning, he had a really fun day, as did I.

Vacation report: Washington, DC


It’s time for another episode of “Where did the Perrows go?”, also known as “How does Graeme remember all this stuff?” or “You don’t expect me to read all this, do you?” Today, we’re going to the nation’s capital – no, not Ottawa, the capital of our neighbours to the south: Washington, DC. In August of 2016, the four of us drove down to DC for four days of sightseeing. Although much shorter than the 2+ weeks in Florida in 2014, France in 2008, and the UK in 2009, this was a very fun trip and we all had a great time. As per usual, here’s the breakdown of where we went and what we saw. If you’re on Facebook, you should be able to see this photo album of the trip.

Incidentally, Graeme remembers all this stuff because he brings a notebook with him on vacation and writes it all down every night. Otherwise this article would be much shorter.

Monday, August 22 – Safari Niagara

Our first day of vacation had nothing to do with Washington other than the fact that we spent the night in the USA. We left around 9:00am, dropped Shadow off at the “B&B” we board him at when we’re away, and drove to Safari Niagara, where we spent the day with my sister Trudy and her four-year-old daughter Liv. Gail and the boys had been there before, last summer, but I had never been and I loved it. It was big but not massive like the Toronto Zoo, and also spread out but not like Marineland where you have to walk for fifteen minutes before you see anything. We saw flamingos, eagles, tigers, lions, gibbons, monkeys, giraffes, camels, kangaroos, and a few others. The gibbons were unbelievably loud – a sign said that in the jungle, they can be heard several kilometers away and we could easily believe it.

Budgie feedingThe highlight for me was the budgie feeding building, where you can buy popsicle sticks covered with sticky stuff and birdseed for $1 each. The budgies are very tame and will land on the sticks, your hand, or your arm to eat the seed. Gail even had one land on her head for a few seconds. At one point I must have had eight budgies on the stick, on my hand, and on my arm at one time. Other than the one who thought the freckle on my arm was a seed, this was very cool.

After a busy and fun day, we left around 5:30. Trudy and Liv went back home to Toronto while we crossed the border, went to the Olive Garden in Niagara Falls for dinner (and to pick up Ryan’s hat after he left it there back in July), and then checked into our hotel around the corner. We stayed at the Econolodge near the airport, which was a nice enough place. It was relatively expensive but that’s mostly explained by “near the airport”. After a couple of hands of rummy, we plugged the laptop into the hotel TV and watched a bit of Now You See Me (a fun magic/heist movie) before bed.

Tuesday, August 23 – Driving day #1

The hotel had complementary breakfast, which was your standard cereal, mini-muffins, yogurt, bread, bagels, etc. No eggs, bacon, sausage, or French toast, but they did have a waffle maker which Nicky made use of. After we ate (back in our room since the tiny little breakfast area was full), we packed up the van and got ready to head out. This is when we realized that the GPS in the van was programmed with maps of Ontario plus only a handful of north-eastern states. These included New York and Pennsylvania (which we used on the Hershey trip last year and Darien Lake this year), but not Maryland or Virginia, so we couldn’t find the next two hotels we’d be staying at. Without a specific travel data plan, enabling data on Bell Canada smartphones while in the US is unbelievably expensive (something like $6 / MB – that’s $6 per megabyte, so $6,000 per gigabyte), so I had bought a $20 package that gave me 200 MB of data for while we were away. But firing up the GPS on my phone for this drive would have eaten through that very quickly, so we set up the maps app on the phone while on the hotel’s wifi, then disconnected with the GPS instructions on the screen. This was a little inconvenient but not a big deal.

We drove south through New York and Pennsylvania (I said this in the Hershey article from last year but it’s still true. The highway in New York was terribly bumpy and loud but the second we crossed the border into PA, it was smooth and quiet), stopping for lunch at a Subway in Ridgeway, PA. The boys had brought a bunch of movies to watch on the drive, but were in the middle of bingeing Star Trek: The Next Generation so they watched (and Gail and I listened to) numerous season 2 and 3 episodes on the drive down and back.

We lost the GPS at the Maryland border but continued on to the Comfort Suites in Hagerstown, arriving around dinner time. We checked in and went to find dinner. We were introduced to a chain called Red Robin on our trip to Hershey last year and we loved it, so we made a point of looking for one. There was one not far away and once again we were not disappointed. After a stop at a local Target for some shopping (snacks for the rest of the trip and the obligatory case of Cherry Coke Zero to take home), we went back to the hotel, finished the movie, played some cards and hit the sack.

Wednesday, August 24 – Air and Space museum, Lincoln tour

The Comfort Suites also had complementary breakfast but they had a few more hot options than the Econolodge, including eggs (though Gail suspected they were powdered), sausages and French toast sticks. After breakfast we drove about a hour to the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center (there’s a name that just rolls off the tongue), which is an air and space museum run by the Smithsonian near Dulles airport. Note that there is another Smithsonian Air and Space Museum on the National Mall in DC, but we’ll get to that on Friday. This place was awesome. It’s one single massive building containing 170 (!!) planes, some helicopters, a space shuttle, and a bunch of other things like pieces of guided missiles and a collection of plane engines. Some of the planes include a Concorde, the Enola Gay (yes, the Enola Gay, not a replica), and a stealth fighter as well as very old biplanes and triplanes, WWI and WWII fighters and even some German warplanes with swastikas on them.

We started in the tower, which is a replica of a real air traffic control tower and gave a great view of Dulles airport and the surrounding area. Then we watched an Imax movie called Journey to Space narrated by Sir Patrick Stewart (I said it was great that they got him to narrate it “because he’s BEEN there, ya know?”) before going into the main part of the museum itself. A tour was just starting so we joined the tour guide. He was clearly retired (he was well over 70) but he knew his stuff, and not just the planes themselves. Someone (possibly Gail) asked how the Stealth fighter got to the speeds that it did and he got right down into the minute details of the engine and how they somehow compressed the engine’s exhaust to increase the speed. I didn’t ask, but I suspect he was a veteran of the Air Force or a Navy pilot or something.

The Concorde was a little smaller than I expected, as it only held about 100 (rich) passengers. I would have liked to have been able to look around inside the Concorde but all the planes were strictly outside-only. No doors were open and the windows on the Concorde were far too high (and small) to see inside. We didn’t get quite as good a view of the shuttle Discovery as we did of the shuttle Atlantis at Kennedy Space Center because Atlantis had its cargo bay doors open and was hanging on an angle, whereas Discovery had the doors closed and was sitting on its wheels. It was still awesome to be right next to the actual shuttle.

We had a bit of a time limit, so we left around 3:30 and drove about 40 minutes into the city to the hotel for the rest of our trip. This was the Holiday Inn Rosslyn, which was not actually in Washington but in Arlington, Virginia, just across the river. We were on the 9th floor and had a great view of Georgetown.

The White House

After checking in, we went to Panera Bread just around the corner for dinner, then took the subway (“Metro”) into DC for a tour we had pre-booked. The tour was with DC by Foot, which specializes in walking tours of Washington DC. The kicker here is that the tour costs whatever you want to pay. You are under no obligation to pay anything, but they ask that you pay what you think the tour was worth. This clearly motivates the tour guides to do a good job, and we were very impressed with both of the tours we did with them. Tonight’s tour was the Lincoln Assassination tour, which started in front of the White House and moved around to various places involved in the assassination of President Lincoln. The tour ended at Ford’s Theatre where the President was shot, though he died across the street the next day. Our tour guide was named Rebecca, and she was knowledgeable and fun. We learned a lot on the tour, including things like:

  1. It was actually a conspiracy to kill Lincoln, the vice president, and the Secretary of State, but the other two assassins chickened out.
  2. John Wilkes Booth was a very famous actor at the time. It’d be like Ryan Reynolds killing the President.
  3. Andrew Johnson took over as President after Lincoln died and was very unpopular. He was impeached with only weeks left in his term because the rest of the government couldn’t wait that long to get rid of him.
  4. Lincoln’s son Robert was not there when his father was shot, but eventually became a politician and was there when both James Garfield and William McKinley were shot.

While walking down Pennsylvania Avenue, we came across a bunch of roller bladers playing a road hockey game in front of the Treasury building (right next door to the White House). I imagine having Pennsylvania Ave. closed to traffic makes this convenient.

After the tour, we walked to the nearby Metro station and returned to Rosslyn and bed.

Thursday, August 25 – Engraving and Printing, Castle, Natural History Museum

We got up a little early on this day and took the Metro into DC. We were planning to take a tour of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing (i.e. where they print US money). Tickets were free but we had read that they were only available that day, and sometimes were sold out by 9am. We arrived there around 8:30, and once we found the ticket booth, there was no line at all. We had our choice of tickets for any time slot, and decided on 5pm so it wouldn’t break up the day.

Once we had our tickets, we walked over to the Smithsonian Castle, the only museum open before 10:00. We had only had a quick breakfast at the hotel and were a little hungry so we stopped at the cafe inside the Castle. There were two or three employees wandering around, but one of them said something like their shift hadn’t started yet (it was about 8:55 at this point), so someone else would help us. We were looking for breakfast sandwiches (eg. egg and sausage on toast) so it wasn’t just something we could pick up from the rack. After waiting for a few minutes while the employees laughed and joked amongst themselves and ignored us, we just said “never mind” and left. This might have been the only example of terrible service we experienced on this trip.

A tour was just starting so we went along. I knew the Smithsonian Institution was named for a guy named Smithson, who left a bunch of money to the US Government for the establishment of museums, or something like that, but what I didn’t know was that Smithson was a British scientist and never set foot in the US. It was never even clear why he left the money to the US and not Britain, and the US government debated whether or not to accept the money for many years before they did, and then took another ten years to decide what to do with it.

As a bit of an aside, all of the Smithsonian Museums are completely free. There are special exhibits in some of them that cost something, and the Imax and Planetarium shows cost extra too, but the museums themselves are free.

Lucy. No sky, no diamonds.After the tour of the Castle, we crossed the Mall and went to the Museum of Natural History. Just like at every other museum we’ve been to on this trip, a tour was just starting as we got there, so we joined in. The tour guide was another retiree who was very knowledgeable, particularly about evolutionary biology, so we picked his brain a lot about the human origins part of the museum. I used to read Owl magazine back when I was a kid (and both my kids did too), and I remember reading about Lucy, the 3 million year-old Australopithicus afarensis skeleton discovered in Africa, so it was kind of exciting to actually see her. I have to say I was a little disappointed to find that it was a replica and not the real Lucy, which is in Ethiopia. But it was still very cool.

The tour went through the mammals section, human origins, the ocean, bones, dinosaurs, and ended with gemstones and the Hope Diamond. There was so much to see that after a not-very-cheap lunch at the cafe downstairs, we went back through half of those areas again. We also stopped in a section called Q?rius (pronounced “curious”), which was a science hands-on exhibit aimed at teenagers. Both the boys enjoyed it.

It was about 4:00 at this point, so we left the museum to head over to the Bureau of Engraving and Printing for our 5:00 tour. It was very hot out (around 34°C, 93°F) so we hoped we would be able to wait inside once we got there. Unfortunately the doors were locked and we had to wait about 20 minutes, but the line was in the shade so it wasn’t so bad. Eventually we got inside. There were lots of panels on the walls full of information, and we learned a lot. The tour itself was also interesting – they make something like $200 million worth of bills every day, 95% of which is used to replace old bills that are worn or damaged and removed from circulation. They stressed at the beginning of the tour that absolutely no videos or photos can be taken inside, but someone tried anyway. When the tour guide saw this, she immediately stopped and very sternly told the guy to stop, or “security will come and take your camera away”. They don’t mess around here.

The tour was only about 20-30 minutes long but pretty fun. After perusing the gift shop briefly, we took the subway back to Rosslyn. One cool thing about the Rosslyn Metro station – the tracks are way underground, so you have to take this super-long escalator down before getting on the train. Wikipedia says the platform is 97 feet below street level, which means the escalator is dropping you almost ten storeys.

We had been told of a good local pizza place called Wise Guys, so we bought a large pizza and took it back to the hotel. It was quite greasy but very good. After a couple of card games, the boys and I went for a swim. There was more “hanging out in the pool” than actual swimming, which was good because we had to get rested up for our major walking day on Friday. After the swim, we read for a while before bed.

Friday, August 26 – Memorial tour

Longest. Walk. Ever.

This was the day of our second DC By Foot tour, a four hour walk through the memorials on the Mall and around the Tidal Basin. The tour started at the Washington Monument, which George Washington himself approved, though it didn’t get started for many years after he died. Construction stopped during the Civil War and resumed ten years later, at which point they found that they couldn’t get the same kind of stone as before. When you’re close to the monument, it’s quite obvious that about 1/4 of the way up, the colour of the stone changes dramatically.

We walked from there to the World War II memorial, a large circular area with a pillar for each state (and a few non-states including the Puerto Rico and the Philippines), and a huge fountain in the middle. Next was the Vietnam Memorial, which was designed by a 21-year-old student to look like a “wound” in the ground. The names of every US serviceman killed or missing in action (all 58,000+ of them) are etched into the wall, and the wall is reflective so that you can see yourself while looking at the names, bringing the present and past together. I personally know nobody who fought in Vietnam and I’m not even American, but I found the memorial very powerful and moving.

Next was the Lincoln Memorial, which was incredible. The building itself is huge and the statue of Abe inside is amazing. The entire Gettysburg Address is carved into one wall, and his second inaugural address is carved into another. From the front, you get a great view of the Mall and Washington Monument (and Capitol building in the distance) and from the back, you can see Arlington National Cemetery across the river.

The Lincoln Memorial

After Lincoln we crossed to the other side of the Mall to the Korean War memorial, which is a set of 19 statues of soldiers as well as a memorial wall similar to the Vietnam one. However instead of names, the faces of hundreds of actual soldiers (from National Archives pictures) are etched into the wall. It is said that one of the faces is Alan Alda from MASH (which took place during the Korean War), and I did see a face that looked like his, but I hope this is coincidental. It seems rather disrespectful to the men and women who actually served in Korea to include the face of someone who only pretended to serve. It is said that no matter where in the memorial you are standing, at least one of the statues is looking at you. The boys and I took this as a challenge but were unable to find anyplace where this wasn’t true.

Next was the Martin Luther King memorial. I knew a bit about the man but almost nothing about the memorial, and it turned out to have been quite controversial. A Chinese architect was chosen to build the memorial and it thus it was actually constructed in China and then brought to the US, and a lot of people were unhappy about that. Further, the sculptor decided to add a quote from MLK onto the side of the sculpture, but shortened the quote to make it fit. However shortening the quote actually changed the context of it and people were so unhappy about it that the quote was removed two years later.

There is a long stone wall on either side of the main sculpture with various other quotes from King. All of them were profound, but two of them stood out for me:

Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.

MLK

The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.

After the King memorial, we started around the Tidal Basin to the Franklin Delano Roosevelt memorial. FDR was the last President to serve more than two terms; he died shortly into his fourth. He also spend his entire Presidency in a wheelchair thanks to polio, though the public never actually saw the chair because he always had a large cloak draped over himself, covering the chair. The memorial is massive – there are four large “rooms”, one representing each of his terms. Each has a waterfall feature that gets progressively more complex in each room, representing the increasing difficulty of his presidencies in dealing with the Great Depression and World War II.

Next was the Jefferson Memorial, another impressive huge marble building, but this one had a bronze sculpture of the President rather than a marble one. This is where the tour ended. We thanked our guide Ingeborg, who did an outstanding job. We were pretty wiped by this point since we had been walking for four hours on one of the hottest days of the year (34°C again). Our next stop was the Air and Space Museum back on the National Mall, so we completed the circle of the Tidal Basin and headed there. After lunch at the (thankfully air conditioned) food court, we walked around the museum for a while, checking out the exhibit on early flight. We then went to the Albert Einstein planetarium for a show called Dark Universe. It was narrated by one of my favourite scientists, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and was a really interesting show about a topic that I’m really interested in (dark matter and dark energy), but being as tired as I was, sitting in a comfy leaned-back chair in a dark room was too much and I slept through most of it. I have to say I enjoyed my nap, but was disappointed to have missed the movie.

Not long after the show, Gail and I decided we were done for the day. It was after 4:00 and the museum closes at 5:00 so it’s not like we bailed out way early, but we were just too tired to continue walking much more. We took the Metro back to the hotel and just rested for an hour or so – played some cards, read a little, and Gail might have had a short nap. Once we were up to walking again, we went to a place called Pancho Villa for dinner, a Mexican restaurant right next door to the hotel. The food was great and it wasn’t crazy expensive. We all enjoyed our dinners and the fried ice cream after wasn’t bad either.

After dinner, we watched some TV before going to sleep.

I didn’t bring an actual pedometer on this trip, but my phone has an app called S Health which does the same thing. At bedtime, I checked and it had counted 23,187 steps, equating to 21.82 km, on this day alone.

Saturday, August 27 – Spy Museum

Not surprisingly, we slept a little later on this day than the others. We stopped at Panera Bread for breakfast again and ate on the train into the city. Today our destination was the International Spy Museum, just a couple of blocks away from the Mall. This is a non-Smithsonian museum, which means we had to actually pay money to go in but we had a lot of fun so it was worth it. In addition to the museum itself, there were two extra activities: Operation Spy and Spy in the City. The first was an “escape room” sort of thing where the participants had to act together as spies to solve problems and save the world. Gail and I hung out in the gift shop while the boys did that, and they had a great time. Once they were done, we started Spy in the City. This was a sort of geocaching-like scavenger hunt where, again, we had to save the world. We got two Android tablets which contained videos describing our missions, and had to follow clues that took us to various places in the area. This took us about an hour and a half, and we had a lot of fun on this adventure as well.

Next, onto the museum itself. We originally figured we’d be there for an hour or two, but ended up staying until dinner time. There was a lot to see, with information and artefacts about spying from ancient times (China, Greece), through the Civil War, World Wars I and II, and into the Cold War era. Oddly, there was very little recent stuff; for example, there were descriptions of human-hair-sized cameras, but they didn’t have any. There was barely a mention of technology after about 1980 until the very end where they had one room talking about safeguarding the power grid and Internet from terrorists. There was also a large James Bond exhibit with artefacts, pictures, and videos from various movies.

By the time we were done at the Spy Museum, it was dinner time. We stopped at the Shake Shack right next door to the museum. The burgers were very good and though Nicky was the only one who ordered a shake, we all helped him finish it and it was great as well.

Once we were done there, the museums were all closed and we were still pretty tired from yesterday so we headed back to the hotel. Played some cards, watched some TV, the usual bedtime stuff. We also packed up for the trip home tomorrow.

Sunday, August 28 – Driving Day #2

Gail had to be home for a Scouting meeting at 7:00, so we got up around 7:30, checked out, and left. Breakfast was at a Dunkin’ Donuts in Hagerstown, just down the street from the hotel where we had stayed on Tuesday night. Lunch was at a place called Sarina’s in Phillipsburg, PA. I don’t know why you’d ever need to go to Phillipsburg, PA, but if you do, stop in here for some great food. I had a steak sandwich which was excellent, Ryan loved his pasta, and I don’t remember what Gail or Nicky had but they enjoyed them. In particular, the buns were amazing and we picked up some to go.

After a 15 minute stop at the Peace Bridge, we got home around 7:00. It really shouldn’t have been an 11+ hour drive – there weren’t any major delays but we were taking our time. Maybe a little too much. Gail was a few minutes late for her meeting.

Vacation report: Moosonee and Moose Factory


The summer of 2016 continues and here is another vacation report, the second of three. Last month we went camping at Darien Lake in New York. This time we went north, then north again, then way north, and then took a train to go even further north.

The destination was the tiny towns of Moosonee and Moose Factory, on the Moose River about 19km southwest of James Bay. In Ontario, this is way the hell up north but in terms of latitude, it’s about the same as Edmonton or London, England. We don’t know anyone who lives in either of these towns so it was not a trip to visit family, and it’s not a big tourist spot but it’s a place we’d never been and a long train trip through the north sounded fun. Also the thought of seeing polar bears and the Northern Lights was a big draw but that ended up being quite different from what we were hoping.

I did not set the trip odometer on the van before we left (and we didn’t drive the whole way anyway) so I don’t know how far we actually travelled, but Moosonee is 885 km from Waterdown as the crow flies, essentially dead north. Google Maps says the drive from home to my parents’ place in Baysville to the motel in Cochrane is 784 km, and the train trip from Cochrane to Moosonee is about 300 km, so we travelled almost 1100km one way – about the same distance from our house as Nashville, TN. And we didn’t even leave Ontario – I don’t imagine there are a lot of states in the US (or entire countries in Europe) where you could travel 1100 km in a straight line and not leave the state/country.

The vacation started on Saturday, July 30, 2016 – my 47th birthday. We drove up to Baysville to stay with my parents for a few days. My sister and her four-year-old daughter Liv were there as well so it was a nice long family weekend. I won’t go into great detail about that part of the trip, but there was some beach time, lots of reading and card games, computer upgrades (I do that a lot at my parents / in-laws’ places…), afternoon naps, and we even went to see Jason Bourne at a theatre in Bracebridge. It was a relaxing four days at the cottage, and then our northern adventure began.

Wednesday, Aug 3

We left the cottage first thing Wednesday morning. By “first thing” I mean 8:30 or so but considering Gail was sleeping until 10:30-11:00 each of the previous few days, this was pretty early. We arrived in Sundridge (chez Matthews) around 9:45 to pick up Gail’s stepmother Jackie and our niece Alison, who accompanied us on the trip. After a brief stop we continued north, stopping for tea in North Bay and lunch at a truck stop called Gilli’s in New Liskeard. We arrived at the ThriftLodge in Cochrane around 4:30. Gail and the boys and I were in one room while Jackie and Alison were next door.

We knew this wasn’t going to be the Ritz-Carlton and it wasn’t but it was a decent place for the price. The beds were fine, there was a TV and fridge in the room, and free wi-fi. We needed a few extra towels and that was no problem. The biggest problem was the heat – it was 31° when we arrived and didn’t get much cooler overnight, which was a problem because the A/C unit was kind of junky. It chugged away all night but didn’t really reduce the temperature very much.

One thing that we thought was amusing was the decor – one of the walls was painted with the lower half purple and the upper half beige, but there was an easily-visible pencil line where the two colours met and the painting at the pencil line was not clean at all. It looked like it wasn’t quite finished. There was also a chain-lock on the door which was broken.

Piano in CochraneRight: The park in Cochrane had two or three pianos scattered around for people to play whenever they feel like it. Neat idea.

After checking in, we drove into town and went to the park next to the lake (Commando Lake). Jackie grew up in northern Ontario, mostly Timmins, but she spent her grade ten year in Cochrane so she pointed out where things used to be, most of which were no longer there. We walked around and over the lake (there’s a bridge across the middle) and then once people started to get hungry, we decided on Subway for dinner. We picked up our sandwiches and went back to the hotel to eat and play Yahtzee. I don’t actually remember who won the game (I think it was me) but it’s important that you all know that I was the only one who actually achieved a Yahtzee.

Thursday, Aug 4

We set an alarm and got up at 7:00. After showers and something quick to eat (Jackie brought muffins and we had some granola bars stashed away), we packed our backpacks. Since we were taking the train to Moosonee, we wouldn’t have the van handy so we had to carry everything we’d need. We drove to the train station around 8:00 and found our seats. The train left at 9:00 and our tickets were collected shortly after that. Once they had our tickets, we were free to move around the train. The train seats were comfortable, though most of the armrests between them were broken. You could raise or lower the armrest but if it was raised, the slightest pressure from leaning on it (i.e. attempting to actually use it for its intended purpose) would lower it anyway. Our car was maybe 1/2 to 3/4 full.

Our car was in between the dining car (to the back) and the observation car. We first headed to the dining car where we bought breakfast. There quite a wide variety of options available: coffee, tea, bagels, fruit, cereal, and various toasted egg sandwiches. It wasn’t the cheapest breakfast ever but the prices were surprisingly reasonable. When you’re selling to people trapped on a train for five hours with no other food options, you could easily charge $4 for a coffee and $10 for an egg sandwich but the prices weren’t bad. After breakfast, we spent most of the trip in the observation car playing cards. I think Jackie, Alison, and Gail each had naps.

The dome car

The scenery from the train was basically the same the whole trip – thousands and thousands of black spruce trees. But this was not a vast field of Christmas trees; the majority were tall and narrow and scrubby-looking. Some looked like 50-foot poles with branches only on the top 10 feet. For part of the trip, there were power lines parallel to the tracks. To build the towers, there was a strip about 50 feet wide next to the tracks where all the trees had been removed. Oddly, every few hundred feet there was a rectangular section beyond that strip where the trees had also been removed. This meant that the tree line following the tracks, if viewed from above, would have looked vaguely like a square waveform.

We weren’t actively looking for wildlife but we may have seen two birds the entire trip. That’s it. Despite the fact that the train is known as “the Polar Bear Express”, we knew we wouldn’t see polar bears from the train. Bears and moose were also unlikely but we figured we might see something, even if it was just a squirrel in the distance. This lack of wildlife held up the rest of the trip, as we saw a few more birds in Moosonee and Moose Factory, but nothing else.

Welcome to MoosoneeWe arrived in Moosonee right on time, around 2:45, and it was surprisingly hot considering how far north we’d travelled. Just like Cochrane the day before, it was 31° and humid when we arrived. We had booked rooms at a B&B called the Moose River Guest House, which was a five minute walk from the train station. The place was beautiful, quite possibly the nicest B&B we’ve ever stayed at. It had six guest rooms, a common area, dining room, an enclosed outdoor sun room, and a huge kitchen, all of which were at our disposal. It had hardwood floors throughout and was beautifully furnished and decorated. Each room had only one bed, so we had to book three rooms. Ryan and I stayed in one, Gail and Nicky in another, and Jackie and Alison in a third. Jackie & Alison’s room was massive – a queen bed, ensuite bathroom, and a large L-shaped sitting area with a desk, couch, a few chairs including a big recliner, and a bookshelf with lots of books. Our rooms were smaller but still very comfortable.

I can’t say enough good things about our stay at this B&B. The manager, Trudy, was very friendly and accommodating, and the fact that there were no other guests at the time meant that we had the whole house to ourselves. Even after we checked out on the Friday, she said we could keep our bags there until we had to leave for the train, and even come back and make use of the house if we had time to kill.

Moose River Guest House

After checking in and dropping our bags, we headed out into Moosonee. We had been told there wasn’t an awful lot to see so we figured we’d walk down to the river. We were also told that pretty much everything was on the main street so while walking toward the river, we looked for the main street. It wasn’t until we were almost at the river that I realized we were already on the main street. “Everything is on the main street” was referring to the elementary school (in the same building as the Northern College Moosonee campus), the grocery store, hardware store, LCBO, post office, municipal building, and restaurant.

By the time we got to the river, the black flies had gotten so bad that we just turned around. We rarely get black flies at home but the further north you go, the worse they get. In Muskoka, they’re bad in May and June and then that’s it; it’s mostly just mosquitos after that. In Moosonee, the black flies are bad all summer.

There’s only one restaurant in town, called the Sky Ranch. We had planned on having dinner there but when we found the place, it looked like a nasty little hole-in-the-wall and we changed our minds. Perhaps the view from the outside was deceiving and the food was outstanding – I’ve certainly been to places like that before. But we weren’t willing to take that chance. Since we had the use of the kitchen at the B&B, we decided to stop at the grocery store and pick up some stuff for dinner. It was a fully-stocked grocery store but our options were still limited because prices were insane. A bag of chips was $5.99. A case of Coke was $17.99. One box of KD – $1.29 at home, $0.99 on sale – was something like $4.29. Pretty much everything was at least double what we’d pay at home. Welcome to the north.

We were going to grab a box of wings or chicken fingers or something easy but couldn’t justify the cost. We ended up buying a box of fettucine, a couple of jars of alfredo sauce, and a surprisingly inexpensive premade salad. On our way back, we stopped in at Northern College and looked around at the displays of Native culture. There were paintings and sculptures, but also examples of beading and moccasins, various hunting and trapping implements, and other historical information. It was like a mini-museum with classrooms in between the exhibits. We stayed a little while (not gonna lie, we also enjoyed the air conditioning) and then returned to the B&B for dinner.

After dinner we thought about going back out for a walk around town but the torrential rain and gale-force (probably not, but strong) winds make us reconsider. Instead we stayed cozy and dry inside the B&B, playing cards and watching the Jays game until bedtime.

While this far north, we were hoping to strike something off of both Gail’s bucket list and mine: seeing the northern lights. It’s exceptionally rare to see them in the Toronto area, partially because we’re too far south but mostly because of all the light pollution. Apparently Moosonee is a great place to see them, though they’re more prevalent in the winter. We set an alarm and at the stroke of midnight, …

Friday, August 5

…Nicky and I got up and went outside. It had stopped raining so we looked up and immediately were greeted by a very bright street light. Ah, light pollution, we meet again. But it didn’t really matter, since it was far too overcast to see anything. We thought we’d at least get a non-light-polluted look at the Milky Way, but we couldn’t see any stars at all. We were only out for a few minutes before giving up and returning to bed. The rain soon returned and there was lots of thunder overnight.

In the morning, we woke to find that Trudy had set out things for breakfast. There were a few types of cereal, some hard-boiled eggs, bagels, bread, oatmeal, milk, juice, and of course coffee and tea. After eating, we packed up our bags and put them in the sun room, then walked down to the docks. Luckily the black flies weren’t nearly as bad on this day as the previous day. We took a water taxi over to Moose Factory Island. The normal price is $15 per person but our taxi driver (since it’s a boat would it be taxi pilot? taxi captain?) gave us a deal: $10 per person and if we book a ride back later, he’ll give us the same price for the return trip.

The Eco LodgeHe dropped us off at the Eco Lodge, which is a hotel in suburban Moose Factory. From the web site, somehow I had the impression that the Eco Lodge was more than just a hotel, though I wasn’t sure what. I thought maybe there were exhibits or a small museum or something but no, it was just a hotel. A beautiful-looking hotel, but nothing more. Even the restaurant was closed until dinner time. We walked into town, about 20 minutes, until we arrived at the Thomas Cheechoo Jr. Memorial Complex, located on Jonathan Cheechoo Drive. I believe the street is named for the Jonathan Cheechoo who used to play for the NHL’s San Jose Sharks, and I imagine he’s also related to the building’s namesake.

The complex was the site of the final day of a “Gathering Of Our People” (and we did see signs advertising it as GOOP). Both Moosonee and Moose Factory have large native communities; in fact I heard that something like 80% of the population is Cree. As part of the Gathering there was a powwow, but it was the previous day so we missed it. There was a live band playing; I expected it to be traditional Cree music and was interested to hear that, but to my surprise they launched into a bunch of CCR songs. We grabbed some lunch and Gail, Nicky, and Alison tried their hand at archery.

We planned on heading down to the Cree Cultural Centre but as we started walking in that direction, the rain returned. We decided to head back to the Eco Lodge and wait for the water taxi, since we were getting wet and we wouldn’t have much time at the Cultural Centre anyway. It only really rained for 10-15 minutes and then it got hot so we were mostly dry by the time we got back to the Lodge. After a short wait, our water taxi arrived and returned us back to the mainland. By this time it was raining again so we took a taxi back to the B&B for guess what? More cards!

Around 4:00 we grabbed all of our things and headed to the train station. Being a Friday night, the train was much more full than it had been on the way up. We had dinner on the train, and Jackie, Alison, and the boys spend most of the trip in the dome car again, while Gail and I read / napped.

We arrived back in Cochrane around 9:50pm. We drove back to the Thriftlodge and checked in again. The four of us got exactly the same room we had before while Jackie and Alison were a couple of doors down. Remember I said that our room looked not-quite-finished? That’s because it wasn’t. While watching the Jays game before bed, I happened to look at the wall next to the TV and saw that the pencil line had been covered with wooden trim, and the broken chain lock had been replaced with a gleaming gold bar lock. The room looked much better – clearly they were busy while we were gone.

Saturday, August 6

In the morning, we packed up, checked out, and headed to Tim Horton’s for breakfast. After we ate, we drove over to Cochrane’s main tourist attraction, the Polar Bear Habitat. I was a little worried that it was going to be a crappy little zoo with an old and mistreated polar bear, or maybe two, but this couldn’t have been further from the truth. It was a lovely place and while it’s true that there were only two polar bears, they were anything but mistreated. The Habitat is not just a place where the public can see polar bears, it’s a place where scientists study and care for polar bears – in fact it’s the only place dedicated to polar bears in the world. We arrived just in time for the “meet the keeper” talk, where a scientist told us all about the facility and the bears. She was clearly Australian, and I thought it was odd that an Australian would want to study polar bears since Australia is about as far from where polar bears live as you can get. She told us that she was studying brown and grizzly bears in BC when this job came up and she couldn’t turn it down.

GanukAnyway, she was full of great information and very accommodating. She must have spent an hour talking to all of the visitors. The two massive bears were both wandering around their enclosures and one even went for a swim. I was amazed at the overall size of the bears but in particular, their paws were enormous. Outside, there was a “heritage” village, recreations of a number of old buildings from the area. One was a railroad station with lots of train memorabilia, including a video of the history of Cochrane and its fires – the town has burned entirely to the ground twice. But they learned: the second time they rebuilt the town, the first thing they built was the fire station.

Here’s a video of Henry the polar bear trying to get into his room. The doors were closed because they were cleaning it, so he couldn’t get in. But he kept checking and every time he found the doors closed, he swung his head around in this hilarious frustrated-looking manner, as if he were saying “my GOD, it’s STILL closed!” We must have watched him do this 20 times.

The Polar Bear Habitat was a great place and a fun way to spend a few hours. After perusing the gift shop, we got in the van and headed south to Sundridge, stopping for lunch at Rolly’s Restaurant near New Liskeard. We also stopped a few times to take pictures of the big statues of things we saw on the way up – a buffalo, a lumberjack, a pickerel, a cow, and in Cochrane, a polar bear.

We spent the night in Sundridge and drove home the next day, thus ending the second of our three mini-vacations this summer.


All in all, I have to say this wasn’t our most exciting vacation ever. Moosonee and Moose Factory are not really tourist towns and there wasn’t really a lot to see. There were no moose and no polar bears (except where we expected them to be but no wild polar bears) – we didn’t even see any squirrels. No northern lights and no view of the Milky Way. And there were bugs and a lot of rain. But we had fun anyway. We spent a lot of time playing cards and reading, and I suppose we could do that at home. But we also got to visit an area of the country that we’d never been to before, stayed in a lovely little B&B, experienced a bit of Native culture, and met a lot of friendly people. We also took a trip on a train (that wasn’t a GO train) which is something we haven’t done since France in 2008. I’m not sure I’ll go back, but I’m glad we went.