The clean green pipeline machine – a free-market fairy tale

A review of Donald Gutstein’s The Big Stall

Also published at Resilience.org

In late 2016 Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was ready to spell out his government’s “Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change”. His pitch to Canadians went along these lines:

We recognize that climate change is a serious challenge and that we must transition to a new economy which dramatically cuts carbon emissions. To make this transition we need a strong economy and a united country. To have a strong economy we must allow our fossil fuel sector to continue to grow. And to keep our country united while we impose a modest price on carbon, we must also build new pipelines so that oil sands extraction can grow. That is why my government is proud to lead the way in reducing carbon emissions, by ensuring that the oil sands sector emits more carbon.

If you think that sounds absurd, then you’re likely not part of Canada’s financial, industrial, political or media elite, who for the most part applauded both the minimal carbon tax and the substantial oil sands expansions being pushed by Trudeau and by Alberta Premier Rachel Notley.

How did we get to a point where oil companies and governments are accepted as partners in devising climate action plans? And why did these climate action plans, decade after decade, permit fossil fuel companies to continue with business as usual, while carbon emissions grew steadily?

This is the subject of Donald Gutstein’s new book The Big Stall: How Big Oil and Think Tanks are Blocking Action on Climate Change in Canada. (James Lorimer & Co., Toronto, October 2018)

Though Gutstein takes a deep dive into Canadian politics, industry and academia, much of his story also concerns the series of international conferences which attempted, with very little success, to come up with strong international solutions for a climate crisis that knows no borders. Thus The Big Stall has relevance to climate change campaigners in many countries.

By the early 1990s, Gutstein says, the pervasive influence of neoliberal economic theory was leading to “a silent corporate takeover of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change”.

Neoliberal theory said that the “free market”, not government, should be relied on to solve the problem of climate change. That suited the oil industry, because the one thing they feared most was a hard-and-fast regulatory limit on carbon emissions.

An ad for tourism in the Canadian Rockies, perhaps? Not so – this is a still from the Alberta government’s tv ad series with the tagline “The TransMountain Pipeline is on  Canada’s side.” At keepcanadaworking.ca.

Lessons from Big Tobacco

In common with many other historians, Gutstein pays close attention to the strong links between public relations campaigns used by the tobacco industry and the similar strategies employed by Big Oil, particularly in sowing public confusion about the scientific consensus.

But as Gutstein’s book makes clear, the mainstream environmental movement failed to absorb a key lesson from the decades-long struggle to combat tobacco addiction: the industry whose products are the root of the problem should not be relied on to devise solutions.

“Corporate participation in COP21 [Paris 2015] and in the conferences and talks leading up to and following it stands in stark contrast with the corporate role in the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. There, tobacco interests are excluded, a fact which helps explain that treaty’s rapid progress in curtailing tobacco use. … At the climate talks, in sharp contrast, there is no conflict between Big Oil’s interests and public health and environmental interests. The corporate sector succeeded in making itself integral to the process.” (The Big Stall, page 158-159)

Fossil fuel interests assured their seat at the table in part by sponsoring the negotiations. In Paris in 2015, Gutstein writes,

“Big Oil even partly financed the talks. France could have easily paid the C$255-million cost, but by allowing corporations to contribute 20 per cent, the host country encouraged the private sector to be part of the inner circle that was planning and organizing the event.” (The Big Stall, page 160)

The result was that in spite of inspiring rhetoric and lofty goals, the Paris Agreement contained no binding emissions reduction requirements. Instead countries were free to make their own reduction “pledges” with no penalties for missing their targets. This result was perfectly predictable, Gutstein says: “Paris was guided to its inevitable conclusion by the veiled hand of Big Oil and its corporate and political allies.” (The Big Stall, page 155)

He traces the pattern of corporate influence over climate negotiations back to the role of Canadian businessman Maurice Strong at the 1992 Rio Summit, and former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Brundtland at the eponymous Brundtland Commission in the 1980s.

Brundtland helped popularize the phrase “sustainable development” – a phrase which Gutstein says has come to mean little beyond sustaining the profits and asset values of major corporations. Thus fossil fuel interests can forge ahead with plans to extract even more nonrenewable resources while forestalling international action to reduce carbon emissions – and then sign declarations of support for “sustainable development”.

An ad for Wind Turbines? Flowers? Puppies? Kites? None of the above – this is a still from an Alberta government tv spot promoting the TransMountain Pipeline expansion, which is intended to double the amount of bitumen exported through the Port of Vancouver.

To tax or not to tax carbon

The story gets complicated, of course, because corporate figures do not always agree on the best ways to protect their bottom lines, and sometimes they respond to changing political winds in different ways.

Gutstein covers these shifts in corporate spin in great detail. Put simply, major fossil fuel interests went from denying that there was any scientific consensus on the reality or cause of global warming, to support for carbon-emissions trading markets, to support for a modest carbon tax.

In Canada in particular, a carbon tax was seen as a necessary concession to strong public concern that Canada wasn’t doing its part to mitigate global warming. Recognizing that the oil sands had a terrible reputation around the globe, oil interests hoped they could earn public favour by supporting a carbon tax. And politicians including Justin Trudeau pitched the carbon tax as an integral part of an indivisible package: we need to tax carbon to reduce emissions, while at the same time building new pipelines to ensure that oil sands extraction continues to grow.1

The common element in all of these fossil fuel corporation strategies is that there must not be any strict regulatory limit on carbon emissions – we must trust “the market”, in all its infinite wisdom, to arrive at emissions reductions. (When fossil fuel interests want subsidies, or need government help to get their products to market, then of course it is quite alright to deviate from free market principles.)

Gutstein makes clear that the level of carbon taxes advocated by fossil fuel interests is far too low to have a significant impact either on their profits or on national carbon emissions. Likewise, he says, the imposition of carbon taxes alone cannot substitute for the wide range of regulatory measures and incentives needed to make a rapid transition away from a fossil fuel economy. But he leaves unanswered another question: does he think carbon taxes could play an important role if they were set high enough to be effective, and were part of an appropriate package of other rules and incentives? In other words, if our political parties move beyond their fealty to neoliberal free-market ideology, should they enact effective carbon taxes?

The final corporate PR strategy that Gutstein discusses is the trend for fossil fuel companies to embrace the “market opportunity” of leading the transition to new energy systems. By publicizing their corporate efforts to buy wind turbines, study battery technology, or build heavily-subsidized prototypes of carbon-capture-and-sequestration plants, fossil fuel companies would like us to believe they are leading the way into a clean green future. But the important action happens behind the scenes, as fossil fuel companies continue to fight against any effective and compulsory limits on carbon emissions.

A clean green future? Major graphics in this article are stills from an Alberta-government funded tv ad series promoting the TransMountain Pipeline expansion. The ads do not show images of pipelines, tar sands open-pit mines, tailings ponds or refineries – just prosperous people and unspoiled environments. (At keepcanadaworking.ca.) Since the ads are paid for by a provincial government, and the TransMountain Pipeline is now owned by the federal government, fossil fuel industry adherence to “free market” principles can be flexible indeed.


FOOTNOTES

By the time The Big Stall was published, Trudeau’s grand bargain was in danger of failing on both fronts. Court cases and business decisions had delayed or cancelled most of the pending pipelines that would facilitate oil sands expansion. In the meantime the minimal carbon tax Trudeau has promised has been dubbed the “job-killing carbon tax” by the new Premier of Ontario and the federal Conservative Party, and the scheduled tax is now vehemently opposed by provincial leaders in about half of the country.

Quantifying climate hypocrisy – the Canada file

Also published at Resilience.org

Which nation shows greater hypocrisy in the struggle to limit climate change – the United States or Canada?

The US President, of course, misses no opportunity to dismiss scientific consensus, downplay the dangers of climate change, and promote fossil fuel use.

Canada’s Prime Minister, on the other hand, has been consistent in stating that the scientific consensus is undeniable, the danger is clear, and Canada must step up to the challenge of drastic carbon emissions reductions.

It was within the first few weeks of the Justin Trudeau administration that Canada surprised most observers by backing a call from island nations to hold global warming to 1.5°C, as opposed to the 2°C warming threshold that had been a more widely accepted official goal.1

Yet according to a new peer-reviewed study2 of countries’ pledged emissions reduction commitments following the Paris Agreement, Canada’s level of commitment would result in 5.1°C of global warming if all countries followed the same approach to carbon emissions. In this tally of the potential effects of national climate commitments, Canada ranks with the worst of the worst, a select club that also includes Russia, China, New Zealand and Argentina.

The actual carbon emissions policies of the US would result in a lesser degree of total calamity –  4°C of warming – if followed by all countries.

Behind this discrepancy between Canada’s professed goals and its actual policy is the lack of a global agreement on a fair method for allocating the remaining carbon emissions budget.

The Paris Agreement set a target for the limitation of global warming, and it was (relatively) straightforward to calculate how much more carbon can be emitted without blowing through that warming target. But countries remained free to decide for themselves what principles to follow in determining their fare share of emissions reductions.

The result?

“Developed countries who committed to take the lead in reducing emissions and mobilizing finance for developing countries often submitted NDCs [Nationally Determined Contributions] that do not match the concepts of equity that they publicly supported.” (du Pont and Meinshausen, “Warming assessment of the bottom-up Paris Agreement emissions pledges”, Nature Communications.)

A fair way to count to 10

An old joke provides a good analogy for the slipperiness inherent in divvying up the global carbon budget. (My apologies to accountants everywhere, especially the one who first told me this joke.)

You ask a mathematician, “how much is 3 + 3 + 4?” She punches the numbers into her calculator, and tells you “3 + 3 + 4 is 10”.

But when you ask an accountant “how much is 3 + 3 + 4?” he sidles up and whispers in your ear, “How much do you want it to be?”

Though climate scientists can provide a simple number for how much additional carbon can be emitted globally before we hit our agreed-on warming threshold, each country’s ruling party decides for themselves how much they want their share of that carbon budget to be.

And the radically different circumstances of countries has resulted in radically different positions on what is fair.

A 2016 study published in Nature gives us insight into Canada’s position.

Entitled “Global mismatch between greenhouse gas emissions and the burden of climate change”, the study categorizes countries into how drastically and immediately they are hit by the effects of climate change. While all countries are already being impacted, the study found that Canada is among the 20% of countries who are suffering least from climate change.

Countries are also categorized according to their responsibility for climate change, and Canada is among the 20% who have contributed the most (on a per capita basis) in causing climate change.

In economic terms, those who do most to cause climate change while suffering the least damage from climate change are “free riders”. Those who do the least to cause climate change, but suffer the most from it, are “forced riders”.

The study shows that Canada is among the 20 “free riders” now, and will still be one of 16 “free riders” in 2030. The “forced riders” in both 2010 and 2030 include many African countries and small island nations. (Yes, that would be the same island nations that Canada claimed to be backing in 2015 in the call to adopt a 1.5°C warming threshold.)

“Figure 1. Global inequity in the responsibility for climate change and the burden of its impacts” in “Global mismatch between greenhouse gas emissions and the burden of climate change”, by Glenn Althor, James E. M. Watson and Richard A. Fuller, Nature, 5 February 2016. Countries shown in dark brown are in the highest quintile in emissions and in the lowest quintile of vulnerability to climate change. Countries in dark green are in the lowest quintile of emissions, but in the highest quintile of vulnerability. The top map shows this mismatch in 2010, the bottom map the projected mismatch in 2030.

Is there evidence that the “free riders” are trying to maintain their free-riding status as long as possible? According to du Pont, Meinshausen and their research colleagues, the answer is yes: most countries have set carbon emissions commitments that reflect their immediate self-interests. In the case of the major fossil fuel producers and consumers, that means the sum of their commitments adds up to a woefully inadequate global carbon emissions reduction.

An equity framework that dares not speak its name

In their discussion of the emissions reductions pledges made by nations following the Paris Agreement, du Pont and Meinshausen try to match these pledges with various approaches to equity. They note that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has listed five major equity frameworks. These frameworks are summarized in this table from an earlier paper:

Source: “Equitable mitigation to achieve the Paris Agreement goals”, by Yann Robiou du Pont, M. Louise Jeffery, Johannes Gütschow, Joeri Rogelj, Peter Christoff, and Malte Meinshausen, Nature, 19 December 2016

 

Of particular interest for our purposes is the final entry, CER or “Constant emissions ratio”. This has been defined as

“[maintaining] current emissions ratios (‘constant emissions ratio’, or CER), so that each country continues to emit the same share of global emissions as it does at the moment, even as the total volume is cranked down.”3

In other words, those who have emitted an outsize share of carbon in the past get to preserve an outsize share of a shrinking pie in future, while those who have emitted very little carbon to date are restricted even more drastically in future.

If that sounds anything but fair to you, you are not alone. Du Pont and Meinshausen say the Constant Emissions Ratio “is considered unfair and not openly supported by any country.”

Yet when they looked at the Nationally Determined Contributions following the Paris Agreement, they found that the Constant Emissions Ratio “implicitly matches many developed countries’ targets”.

The Constant Emissions Ratio framework for these countries would be the least stringent of the IPCC’s equity frameworks – that is, it would impose the smallest and slowest cuts in carbon emissions.

In the case of Canada and other members of the climate rogues gallery, their post-Paris commitments turn out to be even weaker than commitments calculated by the Constant Emissions Ratio method.

Former ExxonMobil CEO and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Follow the money

Let’s take a closer look at some of the Nationally Determined Contributions – individual nations’ commitments towards the global goal of rapid decarbonization.

“Selected Country Pledges Under the Paris Agreement and GHG Emissions”, from “The Paris Agreement on Climate Change”, by Radoslav Dimitrov, published by University of Western Ontario, March 2018.

Canada’s commitment ranks among the weakest of this lot for three reasons. First, the Reduction Target of 30% is near the low end of the scale, with several other industrial economies pledged to Reduction Targets of 40% or more. Second, the Target Year for achievement of the Reduction, 2030, is five years beyond the US and Brazil Target Dates of 2025. This matters, because every year that we continue to emit high amounts of carbon makes it that much more difficult to forestall catastrophic climate change.

Third, the Base Year is also very significant, and on this measure Canada also ranks with the poorest commitments. The European Union, for example, pledges to reduce from a Base Year of 1990, while Canada will work from a Base Year of 2005.

Between 1990 and 2005, Canada’s greenhouse-gas emissions rose 25%,4 and so if Canada’s emissions in 2030 are 30% lower than in 2005, that is only about a 12% reduction compared to 1990.

Canada’s national government claims to understand that swift and dramatic action must be taken to reduce carbon emissions. So why would this government then commit to only a 12% emissions reduction, compared to 1990, as a target for 2030? Let’s follow the money, with a quick look at the relative influence of the fossil fuel industry in Canada.

Radoslav Dimitrov writes

“the energy sector (oil, gas and electricity) is important to the Canadian economy, accounting for approximately 10% of national GDP in 2016, more than a quarter of public and private investment, and approximately 29% of exports.”5

Notably absent in the above paragraph is employment. Natural Resources Canada says that in 2017, only 5% of employment was either directly or indirectly within the energy sector, and that includes the electricity sector.6

Both of Canada’s traditional ruling parties like to talk about their commitment to “good middle-class jobs”. But given the scale of the environmental crisis we face, how big a challenge would it be to fund an immediate job retraining and investment program to start replacing fossil fuel jobs with renewable energy jobs? Couldn’t a committed government-and-industry program find new “middle-class jobs” for 3% or 4% of the working-age population?

I think the answer is yes … but as for capital investment, that’s another story. The fossil fuel industry accounts for closer to 25% of Canadian investment, and an immediate and sustained push to reduce the output of carbon-intensive fuels would result in a dramatic and immediate drop in the stock-market value of fossil-fuel corporations.  Those stocks are a big part of the portfolios of most people in Canada’s stock-owning class.

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau

A two-pronged strategy which starts with “dig the hole deeper”

Since before his election as national leader, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has proclaimed the need to “balance the environment and the economy”. What has this meant in practice?

As the industry-friendly Financial Post put in in 2015,

“The encouraging news — at least from the perspective of the energy sector — is that Mr. Trudeau seems onside with continued oil industry expansion and that his climate change program aims to support it rather than contain it.”7

Part of Trudeau’s program was a commitment to establishing a modest national price on carbon. He found a prominent early ally in an unlikely location, Alberta. There the NDP Premier Rachel Notley not only implemented a carbon price, but also announced a cap on carbon emissions from Alberta’s oil and gas sector.

Notably, however, that cap will start to reduce tar sands emissions only in 2030, and in the meantime emissions from that sector are projected to rise 50%, from 66 megatonnes/year to 100 megatonnes.

The Alberta plan thus mirrors Trudeau’s national policy. While championing a modest carbon tax, the Prime Minister has consistently pushed for the construction of major new pipelines – and the business case for these pipelines is that they are essential in the expansion of tar sands extraction.

On this front, at least, Trudeau is willing to put our money where his mouth is. Last summer, the Trudeau government invested $4.5 billion to buy the TransMountain Pipeline, with the prospect of spending at least several billion more in a much delayed project designed to almost triple the line’s bitumen-carrying capacity.

Meanwhile a national price on carbon emissions of $20/tonne is scheduled to be implemented in January 2019, rising to $50/tonne in 2022. While most environmentalists see this as a positive step, they also believe the price needs to be much higher if it is to result in dramatic emission reductions.

Setting a low bar and failing to clear it

As we have seen, the Nationally Determined Contribution that Canada has offered in response to the Paris Agreement is one of the world’s weakest.

The evidence to date suggests that Canada is on track to miss its own low target. Canada’s Environment Commissioner Julie Gelfand concluded in March 2018 that Canada is making little progress and will miss its 2030 targets unless both the federal and provincial governments step up the pace.8 And just this week, the UN Environment Program said that Canada is on track to miss its emissions targets for both 2020 and 2030.9

That should come as no surprise: it’s hard to cut national emissions by 30%, when you’re also fully committed to the continued rapid expansion of the country’s most carbon-intensive industrial sector – tar sands extraction.

Photo credits: all photos are publicity photos released by the Prime Minister’s Office, Canada, taken by Adam Scotti, accessed at https://pm.gc.ca/eng/photos.


References

1  “Catherine McKenna pushes for 1.5 C target in Paris climate talks”, Globe & Mail, December 6, 2015

2  “Warming assessment of the bottom-up Paris Agreement emissions pledges”, by Yann Roubiou du Pont and Malte Meinshausen, Nature Communications, accessed at https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-018-07223-9.pdf

3  In “US trying harder on climate change than ‘unambitious’ China, says study”, CarbonBrief, 20 December 2016

4  “Canada’s greenhouse-gas emissions rose sharply between 1990 and 2005: study”, April 22, 2008, accessed at CBC News.

5  “Selected Country Pledges Under the Paris Agreement and GHG Emissions”, from “The Paris Agreement on Climate Change”, by Radoslav Dimitrov, published by University of Western Ontario, March 2018.

6  “Energy and the economy”, on the Natural Resources Canada website, accessed Nov 28 2018.

7  “Justin Trudeau aims to strike balance between environment, economy with carbon policy”, Financial Post, February 6, 2015

8  “Canada, provinces lack clear plan to adapt to climate change, auditors say”, by Mia Rabson, Canadian Press, 27 March 2018

9  “Canada set to miss C02 emissions target, UN says,” in Toronto Star, 28 November 2018, accessed in Pressreader.

heat of summer

PHOTO POST

As the most intense heat wave in years takes hold of the lakeshore, the growth of some plants accelerates, others parch and wither, and many marsh-dwellers seek mid-day shade or the cool of twilight hours.

With a still bountiful supply of moisture, green plants in the marsh are tall and lush, though the air is steamy with transpiration.

Featured Creature (click images for larger views)

Water levels are dropping, exposing little isthmuses and giving grasses a chance to spring up out of the mud. This killdeer is feeding by sunset in Westside Marsh.

Stepping to the Sunset

Garden plants are remaining lush only if they are watered every day or two – but these Evening Primrose blossoms did grab onto a generous morning dew.

Primrose by Morning

 

Blooming Bergamot

Bergamot, above, and Viper’s Bugloss, below, answer the mid-day sun with particularly intense bursts of colour.

By a Thread

 

Ring Bill

Ring-billed Gulls, above, and Osprey, below, keep watch over waters of marsh and lake, and swoop down frequently to grab small fish.

Balance One

 

Balance Two

 

At Roost

The chilly waters of Lake Ontario can usually be counted on to keep the air a bit cooler – though on a calm night the cooling effect seems not to make it even 50 meters inland. Perhaps that is why two Great Blue Herons forsook their fishing grounds in the marsh one night and joined the gulls out on the Port Darlington breakwater.

 

Heron at Light House Rock


 

Top photo: Red Goose (click here for larger view)

Kings of the Yukon: a travel story as deep and wide as the great river

Also published at Resilience.org.

It’s a simple truth: the slower you travel the more you see.

Kings of the Yukon, by Adam Weymouth, published by Penguin in the UK, Little, Brown in the US and Random House in Canada

This was impressed on me in the summer of 1988, as I traveled through the Yukon Territory at the frenetic pace of a bicycle tourist. Where the highway occasionally crossed the Yukon River, I sometimes shared campsites with a more patient breed of traveler, the drifters.

Arriving at the riverbank with little more than a sleeping roll and an axe, they had fashioned crude rafts and set themselves afloat in the current for weeks at a time. The stories they told – of rounding a bend and surprising a moose cow and calf swimming through an eddy, or waking up in the strange light of the subarctic midnight and not knowing where they were or what century they might be in – have held my imagination ever since.

British writer Adam Weymouth is a even better story teller than anyone I met that summer. His new book Kings of the Yukon recounts a 2000-mile canoe trip, from the upstream end of the river’s tributaries to its sprawling delta on Alaska’s Bering Sea coast.

As a travel tale the book is first-rate. But Weymouth’s keen interest in the Chinook – aka King – Salmon, and his listening skills when he meets dozens of river-dwellers whose cultures have been shaped by the migrations of this fish, combine to fascinating, awe-inspiring, and often heart-breaking effect.

When he begins his river journey at McNeil Lake he is just three days removed from his home in London. After a few weeks paddling downstream, however, his senses have changed to suit the new setting:

 

“I am able to focus in on a fleck of white from half a mile away, and spot a bald eagle sitting motionless, scarcely aware how I have done it. I find that I can tell a species of a tree by how it is moving in the wind, how the aspen leaves twinkle but the birch’s quiver. … I had always thought that learning birdsong was beyond my capabilities, but out here the songs are starting to stick: the dark-eyed junco, which sounds like a telephone ringing; the white-crowned sparrow; the raucous kingfisher. Despite my many years of city living, I think perhaps I might not be a lost cause after all.”

It’s not as easy to get to know the fish, which mostly slip by his canoe cloaked in impenetrably silty river water. Fortunately he can learn from people who have spent generations understanding the comings and goings of salmon.

There was a time when many great rivers in Europe and North America teemed with salmon. Gifted with the rare ability to live in both fresh water and salt water, many salmonids are born in shallow stream beds, travel far downstream and into the open oceans, and then return against the currents several years later to spawn in the same spots where they were born. But today deforestation, over-fishing, and the construction of dams have decimated salmon populations.

In the untamed rivers where salmon remain strong they are a prized food source. Their dependable migrations, plus the nutritious oils between their skins and flesh, make them a superb source of energy for people who must make it through long cold winters.

 

A steep decline

The Yukon River system is one of the richest remaining salmon habitats – but there too populations of some species have seen a steep decline. The Chinook Salmon, the largest and most prized salmon species in North America, has dropped both in numbers and in average size.

When I camped at an informal squatter’s village outside Dawson City in 1988, river rafters tipped me off to a great bargain – fresh whole Chinook salmon, sold for $2 a pound from coolers on the back streets of town. The resulting campfire feast was so memorable I wanted to share the experience with my son on our bike trip through the Yukon twenty years later. Alas, I was told the fish had become scarce, quotas were severely restricted, and sales were now banned.

A disappointment for a tourist – but a tragedy for the many native communities along the river. The most moving passages in Kings of the Yukon come when people share their feelings about the deep changes being forced on their cultures. For generations people have marked the seasons by the passage of the salmon, and the rituals of setting nets, stocking smoke-houses, cutting and slicing and drying the red-orange fillets into stores of dried fish which will last through the winter. Now they struggle to decide if they can catch just enough fish each year to pass on their culture to the next generation – or if even that minimal harvest will prevent salmon populations from rebuilding.

There are many viewpoints on why Chinook Salmon numbers have dwindled, and Weymouth is clear-eyed and even-handed in his treatment. He makes clear, too, why the salmon are important not just to people, but to the earth’s largest ecosystem, the boreal forest. The vast river systems ceaselessly carry silt and minerals – soil fertility – out to the oceans. But uncounted millions of salmon carry this nutrition back upstream to their spawning grounds where they reproduce and then die.

Besides humans, bears are the famously photogenic beneficiaries of the salmon runs. But the bears typically eat just the choicest parts of the salmon they toss from the rivers; most of the fish will decompose on the forest floor, and the very trees are dependent on a cycle of nutrition that spans many years and many thousands of miles.

Weymouth braids many strands into his story – the distinctive native cultures that spread out from coastal delta to arctic tundra, from rain forests to distant mountain lakes; the devastating epidemics introduced by whalers, traders and missionaries; the ongoing social catastrophe set in motion by a residential school system consciously designed to put an end to native ways of life; the rhythms of seasonal subsistence fishing camps and massive industrial processing plants; even the distribution centre that eventually sends plastic-wrapped slices of salmon to supermarkets throughout Britain.

By the time he paddles out the seven-mile wide mouth of the Yukon into salt water waves, four months have passed, darkness has begun its takeover of the subarctic nights – and his readers have absorbed as good an introduction to northern life as they could hope to find in a single volume.

Illustration at top: “Chinook Salmon, Adult Male”, from plates in Evermann, Barton Warren; Goldsborough, Edmund Lee (1907) The Fishes of Alaska, via Wikimedia.

The mobility maze

Also published at Resilience.org.

Mobility is good, so more mobility is better, right? If only it were so simple.

Mobility, after all, is generally less important to people than accessibility. When we go somewhere it’s not the movement that’s valuable, it’s the access to something – a school, shopping, a workplace, a friend’s house or a park – that really counts. That holds true whether we’re walking across the street, taking a subway to work, or navigating suburban traffic in an SUV enroute to the big-box store.

A prioritization of mobility in transportation planning, unfortunately, often has the result of reducing accessibility.1 Particularly in North America, a century-long focus on mobility has resulted in drastic changes to urban and suburban landscapes. As we travel into a new century facing the challenges of climate change and reduced energy affordability, the inherited legacy of mobility-fixation presents major challenges to average citizens and land-use planners alike.

If we look back just over a century, both the bicycle and then the car initially increased both mobility and accessibility for many people. True, it was a thrill to travel at speeds that had previously seemed inhuman. But fast wheeled transportation also opened up many new opportunities for late nineteenth and early twentieth century people. The local school, local stores, local employers were no longer the only options – suddenly many people could easily access opportunities on the other side of the city or the other side of the county.

The increase in accessibility was especially significant to rural Americans whose social worlds had been tightly circumscribed by the distance they could walk or ride a slow horse. There was very good reason that “Of the first million Model Ts that Ford sold, 64% went to the farm and small town market.”2

Yet as quickly as cars increased accessibility for rural people, cars decreased accessibility for a great many city-dwellers, especially those not privileged enough to drive a car. The first change was that on many streets, it was no longer safe to access the other side of the road by foot, as people had done for millennia. If the threat of being run down was not enough, PR campaigns and then laws created the new crime of jaywalking. In busy areas, pedestrians had to walk down the block to a traffic light, wait for their turn to cross, and then double back to the destination. Thus in millions of situations in cities every hour, cars increased accessibility for their drivers while reducing accessibility for people on foot.

A single-minded focus on mobility, however, would introduce far more sweeping changes over time. Once large numbers of people moved through cities by car, big parking lots were needed between stores. Whether on foot or behind the wheel, people now needed to move farther to get where they wanted to go. New zoning regulations separated workplaces from shopping, education and residential districts, requiring people to travel farther.

This mobility focus reached its fullest expression with the mid-twentieth century expressway, AKA “controlled access highway”. All across North America, vast swaths of land were devoted to traffic lanes reserved for high-speed vehicles, with entrances and exits only at widely spaced intervals. Particularly when these expressways slashed through existing cities, they instantly disrupted accessibility in previously thriving neighbourhoods, making a host of urban amenities more difficult to reach for those traveling on foot or by bicycle.

As a general rule we might say that more mobility results in more accessibility, if all other relevant factors remain the same. But when we increase mobility, many other factors do tend to change, either immediately or over the long term, and often the end result is less accessibility.

Can you get there from here?

When looking at maps of North American suburbs and exurbs, an old joke comes to mind. An elderly villager, when asked for directions from his hamlet to a town across the county, answers, “Well, if I wanted to get to [Coventry] [Mariposa] [insert favourite town name], I sure as heck wouldn’t be starting from here”.

But for better or worse, we have to start from right where we are. So in considering the challenges in correcting a decades-long focus on mobility at the expense of accessibility, I’ll conclude this post with a few examples taken from my region.

In the grandly named “Greater Toronto Area”, a heavy reliance on expressways has made the later introduction of commuter rail services both more difficult and less effective. The extraordinary allocation both of land and public finances to expressways encouraged people to commute by car, from far outside the city to jobs in Toronto or its suburbs. But when, inevitably, rush hours lengthened and gridlock became common, belated extensions of mass transit services had to fit into the spaces between expressways, parking lots and major arterial roads. As a result, these transit facilities are neither particularly accessible nor attractive to people who don’t drive.

The Google satellite map below, for example, shows a shopping mall called Scarborough Town Centre, which is attached to a station for a light rail line to downtown.

This “City Centre” concentrates a wide variety of functions including retail stores, restaurants, theatres, office buildings and government services. But because so many people in this area will arrive by car, these functions must be widely spaced to allow many hectares of access roads and parking. Thus the City Centre is not accessible by foot except for determined hikers. Furthermore, the 14-lane expressway Highway 401 is adjacent to the complex, creating a wide separation between this centre and any residential or commercial districts to the immediate north.

As illustrated here, a residence just north of the expressway is only about 800 meters from the train station. But getting past the auto-induced obstacles involves a bike ride of almost 3 km. And it’s not a pretty ride. As shown in the Google Streetview image below, crossing the bridge over the 401 means a noisy, windy, polluted journey over more than a dozen lanes of car and truck traffic.


The need to accommodate car traffic is an even greater handicap for commuter rail stations further outside the city. To the east of Toronto, the GO Transit commuter rail line currently ends on the outskirts of Oshawa, about an hour’s train ride from downtown Toronto. Although several buses bring commuters here from surrounding suburban areas, huge numbers of people arrive by car, and the seemingly endless parking lots are never adequate. The presence of these parking lots, on the other hand, is a barrier to creation of any major, concentrated residential or commercial district within walking distance of this station.

Even for commuters from nearby residential areas in the upper left and right of this image, getting to the station without a car would include navigating the spaghetti-string intersection of Highway 401. (Also shown in image at the top of this post.) Cyclists and pedestrians are seldom seen crossing that bridge in droves.

Recently-built residential neighbourhoods in this area show the same strong emphasis on mobility over accessibility. Here are two examples from the sprawling subdivisions that stretch far to the north of Highway 401.

A small strip mall provides a few services, including a restaurant. As shown here, if you could walk directly to the restaurant from an address just one short block away, you’d only have to travel 120 metres – but as indicated by Google Maps, the actual walking distance is 1 kilometre.

Within these neighbourhoods the intentional lack of a simple grid street plan, replaced instead by irregular blocks, loops and cul-de-sacs, supposedly makes areas like these unattractive to through traffic and therefore quieter. An unavoidable side effect, however, is a major reduction in the number of neighbours or services accessible within a couple of hundred metres. In example below, two neighbours who would be only 135 metres apart in a grid system are instead faced with a 1.2 km one-way trip. In other words, mobility-focused design gives such neighbourhoods poor accessibility for anyone but drivers.

No easy fix

Achieving a transportation mix suited to the coming century will require a focus on accessibility more than mobility. This is a tall order in areas where an expensive, land-use-dominating infrastructure is currently devoted to car culture. It would be comforting to think that this built infrastructure took several decades to construct, and we can now spend several decades fixing the inherited problems. However, the urgency of reducing carbon emissions means we do not have several decades to respond to our current challenges.

Fortunately, there have been citizens’ movements, city governments, urban planners and scholars in many countries who have already provided many valuable lessons. A new book, Beyond Mobility,3 summarizes many inspiring illustrations, and I’ll turn to that book in the next installment in this series.

Top photo: Google Satellite View of intersection of Highway 401 with Stevenson Rd, Bloor St, and Champlain Ave in Oshawa, Ontario, Canada.


NOTES

1For this framing of mobility vs. accessibility, I am indebted first of all to John C. Falcocchio and Herbert S. Levinson, and their 2015 book Road Traffic Congestion: A Concise Guide.

2Tom McCarthy, Auto Mania, pg 37.

3Robert Cervero, Erick Guerra, and Stefan Al, Beyond Mobility: Planning Cities for People and Places, Island Press, December 2017.

the rock blooms

On a tiny island in a small lake at the southern edge of the Canadian shield, flowers grow in the few millimeters of soil that collects in the crevices.

island (click images for larger versions)

 

red green and white

 

shadow

 

edgeflower

A glistening trove of clam shells lies submerged at one side of the island, the remains of some fine dining by one of the lake’s inhabitants – perhaps an otter?

shell game

Back on the mainland, spring flowers have come into bloom before the forest canopy envelops them in shade.

soft as yellow

The forest floor is carpeted with one of the most delicious woodland vegetables – wild leeks, aka ramps, wood leeks, or wild garlic. Noah Richler has a good read on why this allium should be harvested sparingly, and never too early in the spring.

wild leek lunch

 

Top photo: grounded by pink (click here for larger version)

Where the rubber hits the road: biking in all seasons

Also published at Resilience.org.

The fifth annual Winter Cycling Congress, held February 8–10 in Montréal, brought together 375 participants from nine countries and included dozens of presentations and workshops.

It would be impossible to cover the whole Congress in one blog post, but one way to summarize the progress of winter biking would be with this, only partly tongue-in-cheek, exhortation:

“Take heart, stalwart cyclists – The Suits have arrived!”

While the momentum of all-season cycling has been building slowly for decades, progress has accelerated greatly in the past ten years. One result is that city governments across the northern hemisphere are working not only to add new cycling infrastructure, but to keep the bike lanes cleared and safe through the winter.

The Winter Cycling Congress included presentations by several professional consulting firms who design cycling infrastructure in northern cities, villages and rural areas, addresses by big city mayors and members of Parliament, plus input from maintenance experts with experience in widely varying climates.

Can you ride through the winter? Yes, you can.

While bikes have obvious appeal as healthy, low-energy, sustainable transportation tools, in many countries the bicycle’s positive impact will remain limited if people feel they can’t ride in the winter months. If city planners try to build adequate infrastructure for large numbers of cyclists in summer, but still need to accommodate all residents via alternate transport methods in winter, then our overall transport systems will remain costly and inefficient.

What are the main barriers to wider adoption of winter cycling? First, let’s deal with a common, silly objection: people can’t ride when it’s cold. This is absurd because people happily do many other activities outside in winter: ice skating, hockey, snowboarding and skiing, for example. Furthermore, all preceding generations up until about 100 years ago managed to get around in winter without being chauffeured in heated canisters. Dressing for the weather is not rocket science – our Neanderthal forebears were able to figure it out.

So when the cheap gas and diesel run out and there is no choice but to adapt to a low-energy transport system, humans will once again rise to the challenge of putting on long underwear and warm hats, without considering themselves heroes for doing so.

Today there are planning consultants gathering data in many cities, asking what are the major factors that keep people biking in the winter, and what factors make them stop.

Tony Desnick of Alta Planning discussed the results of an international survey. When respondents were asked why they decided to ride in the winter, the most common response was “I started biking and I didn’t want to stop.” (That certainly rang true with me. When I started riding a bike in Toronto in the summer of 1979, I had no expectation of riding all year. But as the months rolled by I liked biking more and more. Soon a whole winter had gone by – and now it’s 38 winters.)

When summer-only cyclists were asked “What will take you off your bike?” sixty per cent cited poorly maintained infrastructure, said Desnick.

While cities around the world are learning that provision of protected bike lanes results in immediate boosts in cycling, winter cities are also learning that a substantial share of cyclists will happily ride through the winter, as long as bike lanes are maintained.

Thus cities such as Minneapolis and Montréal now regularly clear at least some bike lanes promptly after snowfalls, with bike-lane plows going out even before most streets are cleared.

The downtown Montréal neighbourhood of Villeray is home to many cyclists, and now has a protected, well maintained bikeway on Rue Boyer, shown at right. (Click image for larger view)

The leader in taking care of winter cycling facilities is the small city of Oulu, Finland, which hosted the first Winter Cycling Congress in 2013. Though the city is just 150 km south of the Arctic Circle, about 42% of its 200,000 residents keep cycling through the winter, said Winter Cycling Federation vice-president Pekka Tahkola.

The steadily cold winter actually makes cycling and path-maintenance easy, said Tahkola. Maintenance crews leave a thin layer of snow on the paths, this quickly becomes well packed, and cyclists have good traction even without using studded tires. With few thaw-freeze episodes, there is no reason to use road salt so paths and bikes stay clean.

Most temperate-zone cities face tougher challenges, exemplified by the freezing rain which turned to slush and then bumpy ice throughout Montréal during the conference – conditions that are increasingly common due to global warming.

Yet federal politicians, municipal staff, and planning firms from cities such as Calgary, Winnipeg and Copenhagen are helping to ensure that bike infrastructure is not forgotten when winter maintenance programs are designed – and winter ridership is increasing as a result.

Clockwise from left: British Columbia MP Gord Johns has introduced a private member’s bill calling for a National Cycling Strategy in Canada. Anders Swanson of Winnipeg promotes the annual Bike to Work in Winter Day. Mikael Colville-Anderson of Copenhagenize Design Company discussed a major cycling infrastructure initiative in the Russian city of Almetyevsk. (click image for larger view)

Though city governments and planners play a crucial role in these efforts, often it is the activism of determined cyclists which prompts action. Becca Wolfson of the Boston Cyclists Union told the story of the city staffer who wrote that cyclists who want to bike in winter “are living in the wrong city”, and they only represent “.05% of the people” anyway. The response was a well organized campaign on Twitter, with pictures of the winter bike commuters holding signs saying “I am the .05%” or simply “#WinterBiker”. This year Boston is making it a high priority to clear major bikeways of snow.

Nadezda Zherebina discusses the growth of cycling in Russia which has resulted in regular bicycle parades in Moscow, including one in January 2017 when the temperature was –28°C. At the conclusion of the conference, it was announced that Moscow will host the 2018 Winter Cycling Congress. (Photo by Anne Williams, courtesy of Winter Cycling Congress Facebook page).

From downtown cores to the suburbs and beyond

Nor have winter bike activities been confined to major cities. Darnel Harris discussed a program to boost cycling in Toronto’s far-flung suburbs. These areas now tend to have lower housing costs than downtown, and are home to many people who can’t afford either condos or cars. Yet these areas also present major barriers to mobility and accessibility, with high-speed arterial roads, infrequent buses, and schools and stores that are too far from homes for walking to be a practical mode of transport. Among these communities, Harris said, cargo bikes have a particular appeal.

Other presentations dealt with a state-funded program to design biking infrastructure in rural Montana, and a project to connect two small villages in Finland with a safe and attractive bikeway.

Thank God It’s Friday!

But enough of traffic statistics and commuting modal share trends. Some of us also bike in the winter for pure fun, and the week ended with a special treat.

Though the conference officially closed at noon on Friday, about 25 lucky souls from at least five countries took a bus out of town to the great cycling facilities in Bromont. Here we were fitted with fat bikes before heading out on the snow-covered trails. Though we bundled up to stay warm in the –15°C temperature and stiff breeze, most of us soon started shedding layers as we pedaled up hills, slid around hairpin curves and dodged trees. As a conference finale, this was hard to beat.

 

Top photo: Although Montréal’s bike-share system, Bixi, does not operate in winter, conference organizers from Vélo Quebec made arrangements for participants to use Bixis in a variety of outdoor workshops. Here a group leaves the conference venue for a tour of Montréal’s maintained winter bikeways. (Photo by Anne Williams, courtesy of Winter Cycling Congress Facebook page).

Special Delivery: Moving 4,000,000 Tonnes

St Marys mine – Article Index

The St Marys Cement Underground Expansion Project envisions extracting 4 million tonnes of limestone each year from a new mine beneath Lake Ontario on the south side of Bowmanville.

To understand the scope of the project and its possible environmental effects, it helps to look at the logistics: how much transport capacity does it take to move 4 million tonnes per year?

St Marys says that the limestone will be shipped out as aggregate “using existing road, rail and/or dock infrastructure.” These three shipment methods have very different environmental effects, and presumably there will be further detail on the likely mix of shipping modes in the Environmental Assessment.

In coming to terms with the quantities involved, however, marine shipping is the easiest to picture. The bulk carrier Capt. Henry Jackman is a frequent visitor to the St Marys dock. It carries up to 30,550 tons of cargo (source: boatnerd.com) or 27,715 tonnes. To haul away 4 million tonnes, the Capt. Henry Jackman (or similar-sized ship) would need to make 144 trips. This would equal about 4 trips per week during an eight-month shipping season.

Since outgoing shipments of aggregate would be in addition to all the current in- and out-going shipments at the St Marys dock, one key question is: how many boatloads of aggregate could be shipped out each year assuming there are no significant changes to the docking infrastructure?

While marine transport is by far the most efficient in terms of fuel consumed per tonne per kilometer, the market for aggregate may not favour bulk port-to-port shipment. If most of the limestone aggregate is destined for construction projects scattered all around the Greater Toronto Area, then trucking will be the most cost-effective shipping method.

Suppose all the aggregate were trucked to market. Using a round figure of 20 tonnes per truck load, the 4 million tonnes would be 200,000 truckloads per year – about 770 loads each day if the hauling is done five days/week, or about 550 loads per day if hauling continues every day of the week.

There is a wide variance in truck capacity, from tri-axle dump trucks, to dump trucks with secondary trailers, to full-length tractor-trailers. However, unless most of the aggregate is sent by some combination of marine transport and rail, there will be hundreds of truckloads per day of aggregate exiting the quarry, in addition to the current shipments of cement.

The connection between the St Marys quarry and the road network is shown on the Google Maps image below.

waterfront-trail-waverly-annotated2

Drivers who frequently use the Waverly Road/Highway 401 interchange just north of the quarry will attest that traffic frequently backs up at the on/off ramps for eastbound traffic (on the south side of the 401). What effect would a few hundred extra trucks/day have on this traffic?

A major recreational feature, the Waterfront Trail, would also be impacted by the additional traffic. The Waterfront Trail is routed along Waverly Road and Energy Drive just north of the quarry:

Looking west on Waterfront Trail, at junction with Waverly Road.

Looking west on Waterfront Trail, at junction with Waverly Road.

Users of the Waterfront Trail share the road with traffic entering and exiting the 401 in this interchange:

Looking west from Waverly Road along Energy Drive, with on/off ramps for 401 eastbound traffic.

Looking west from Waverly Road along Energy Drive, with on/off ramps for 401 eastbound traffic.

Truck traffic going north on Waverly Road and County Road 57, or going to the westbound 401, will use the narrow bridge over the 401:

Waverly Road bridge over Highway 401 to Bowmanville and to westbound 401 access ramp.

Waverly Road bridge over Highway 401 to Bowmanville and to westbound 401 access ramp.

This bridge is part of one of the two current cycling routes between Bowmanville and the Waterfront Trail (see Getting Across the 401). The combination of a narrow bridge with merging and turning traffic on either side of the bridge makes this a dangerous passage for cyclists, even without adding several hundred more heavy trucks each day.

The transport of 4,000,000 tonnes of limestone aggregate may have significant implications re traffic congestion and danger to vulnerable road users. When coupled with the wear and tear on roads and the emissions from diesel engines, the impact of transportation will be an important part of the Environmental Assessment of this project.

 

Top photo: the Capt. Henry Jackman approaching the St Marys dock, August 2016.

St Marys Cement environmental assessment: does climate policy matter?

St Marys mine – Article Index

A proposal to excavate hundreds of millions of tonnes of limestone from beneath Lake Ontario raises many questions, starting with a big one: should we be planning for the continued expansion of the concrete industry, given what we already know about climate change?

St Marys Cement, a Canadian branch of Brazilian multinational Votorantim Cimentos, operates a limestone quarry and cement factory on the shore of Lake Ontario at Bowmanville, Ontario. The company wants to expand by tunnelling under Lake Ontario from the existing quarry, and removing up to 4 million tonnes of limestone a year for the next 100 years. (The Project Description for the expansion is here.)

Graphic from St Marys project description at http://bowmanvilleexpansion.ca/wp-content/uploads/2016/Bowmanville_Expansion_Project_Description.pdf

Graphic from St Marys Project Description

(A note on terminology: in this article I use “cement” to refer to the white powder that is mixed with gravel and water, and “concrete” to refer to the construction material that results when the gravel-cement mixture reacts with water and solidifies.)

While concrete is one of the most important and ubiquitous materials in modern life, the cement industry is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for 8% of global carbon emissions (Macleans, 7 March 2016). The emissions occur because when limestone is cooked to transform it into cement its natural carbon content is released, and because it takes prodigious amounts of heat to effect this chemical transformation. That is why the St Marys plant in Bowmanville burns both coal and bitcoke (the black powder left over from bitumen after refining) by the shipload.

Not only is cement production carbon-emissions intensive, but the way we use cement tends to encourage further carbon emissions. The biggest share of cement in Ontario goes into concrete pavement which is used to widen roads and add new parking lots – which in turn promotes greater use of cars and trucks.

Which brings us back to the St Marys expansion plan. The company is not saying it will expand its cement production in Bowmanville, but the additional limestone will most likely be used with cement. For further clarity, the limestone extracted from under Lake Ontario will be marketed in industry parlance as “aggregate” – what most people refer to as gravel. And that aggregate will mostly be mixed with cement, to form concrete, or used as a base layer underneath slabs of concrete. In other words, the quarrying of limestone for aggregate will complement St Marys core business of quarrying limestone for cement.

Is a major new source of aggregate needed in the Toronto area? St Marys says in their Project Description:

Over the past 20 years, Ontario has consumed over 3 billion tonnes of aggregate and limestone or about 164 million tonnes per year on average. Given expected levels of economic and population growth, Ontario’s consumption of aggregates and limestone for cement is projected to average about 186 million tonnes per year over the next 20 years.” (Project Description, page 8) [emphasis mine]

The key phrase here is “given expected levels of economic and population growth”. If the economic trends of the past 20 years continue on the same track for the next 20 years, aggregate use will go up by 13 per cent – from 164 million tonnes per year to 186 million. In other words, if we continue Business As Usual, we will need more aggregate.

How is this aggregate used?

Aggregate and limestone are used for a wide range of applications in Ontario; however, the primary use is in construction work, either directly on construction sites, or in the manufacturing of concrete and other building products. Roads (provincial highways, as well as municipal and private roads) account for the largest share of aggregate used in construction work.” (Project Description, page 8) [emphasis mine]

In recent decades the area of pavement has grown faster than the population has grown, because urban sprawl has been the dominant form of development. If we project that “Business As Usual” scenario into the next generation, we’ll need to build a lot more roadway, we’ll need a lot more aggregate, and we’ll need a lot more cement.

But the “Business As Usual” scenario collides head-on with Canada’s official climate policy commitments. Although no one thinks we can or should stop using cement (or fossil fuels) tomorrow, it is clear that we should be making every effort to reduce our carbon emissions immediately, and reduce those emissions at a faster rate with each passing year. That means we should be planning to reduce, not increase, the role of car-dependent sprawl in our urban developments; reduce, not increase, the amount of new pavement we place atop our land each year; and reduce, not increase, the amount of cement we need to cook up and mix with aggregate for concrete each year.

The Business As Usual scenario means we don’t take seriously the climate science consensus that continued growth in carbon emissions will be catastrophic for our grandchildren, and we don’t take seriously our government’s commitment to an economy-wide reduction of emissions.

St Marys Cement notice of Public Information Centre, Monday December 5, 2016

St Marys Cement notice of Public Information Centre, Monday December 5, 2016

Yet there is no evidence in the St Marys Project Description that anything other than a Business As Usual scenario is being considered. Regarding the carbon emissions of the project, the most substantive comment is that the quarry will have “reduced GHG [Green House Gas] emission intensity compared to other quarries that are located further from market.” The report does note, however, that “potential effects on climate change as a result of the Project will be characterized through the EA [Environmental Assessment] process.”

When this Environmental Assessment process gets underway, will St Marys be required to show that the expansion project is consistent with Ontario’s and Canada’s official climate policies? Stay tuned.

 

 

Top photo: The Peter Cresswell docked at the St Marys Cement port on Lake Ontario near Bowmanville.

The Kettle Valley Trail: Myra Canyon

October 1, 2016

over-the-hill-toc
The sun was close to the horizon as the eastern reaches of Kelowna came into view far down the slopes. The sky carried both the threat of rain and the promise of a beautiful sunset, depending on which way the clouds might move. And just ahead were the Myra Canyon trestles – eighteen famous wooden bridges which conducted the Kettle Valley Railway trains around the rim of the Myra Canyon, which now make this the most spectacular and most visited section of southern British Columbia’s rail trail system.

Satellite map showing approach to Myra Canyon from the east, and road down to Kelowna at the west end of Myra Canyon.

Satellite map showing approach to Myra Canyon from the east, and road down to Kelowna at the west end of Myra Canyon.

I still had 37 kilometers to ride if I chose to make it to downtown Kelowna that night. But it was easy to see that a good part of the trip would be downhill.

View from Kettle Valley Rail Trail of eastern outskirts of Kelowna, including airport.

View from Kettle Valley Rail Trail of eastern outskirts of Kelowna, including airport.

It wasn’t long before I arrived at the eastern trailhead for the Myra Canyon trail – a busy parking lot full of hikers and bikers packing into cars and SUVs for the ride home. As I continued towards the first trestle I noticed that the trail surface here was smooth and well-maintained, and that there were still lots of other bikers and walkers in spite of the late-afternoon hour.

An unfortunate fact is that all eighteen trestles are located in one 18-kilometer stretch of trail, so that this ride seemed to fly by in a flash. Or, a fortunate fact is that all eighteen trestles are located in one 18-kilometer stretch of trail, so that I was able to ride to the trailhead at the far side of the canyon in the last hour of sunlight.

If I lived in the Kelowna area, no doubt I would ride this trail many times. But since I’m unlikely to have the chance to visit more than once, I’m glad to have this slideshow from my ride (accompanied here by an excerpt from “Everybody Slides” by the late great dobro player Mike Auldridge).

Now Kelowna and Okanagan Lake were clearly in view, but there was no way of knowing how easy it might be to find my way to downtown in failing light.

Twilight view of Kelowna from Kettle Valley Rail Trail.

Twilight view of Kelowna from Kettle Valley Rail Trail.

Little White Service Road was my route from the west end of Myra Canyon to Kelowna – and though this is a two-lane road open to cars and trucks it’s a very rough ride. In a little over 4 kilometers before Little White Service Road meets pavement at June Springs Road, you drop over 400 meters at a 9% grade. On smooth pavement with wide-radius curves this grade would mean you could fly along at 50 or 60 kph. But on a rough gravel road with many sharp turns, it means you get off the saddle and put all your weight on the pedals so your legs can act as shock-absorbers, thrust your butt back over the rear wheel to keep balance, and squeeze the brake levers as hard as you can, roughly every five seconds, to keep your speed under control.

But soon enough I was cruising down the pavement through orchard country, sniffing the scent of ripe apples in the moist late evening air.

It was well after dark when I reach the shore of Okanagan Lake and found a motel near Okanagan College. I had a real surprise when I got off my bike: my left ankle was swollen and throbbing and I could hardly walk. Apparently that ankle had suffered some damage when I fell on a rocky section of the Kettle Valley Trail a few hours earlier. But through the past 40 kilometers – the most thrilling 40 kilometers of riding since I crossed the Continental Divide in Glacier National Park – I had been quite oblivious to the detail of a small sprain.

Ah well, I had a first-aid kit in my pack, and now I had the satisfaction of knowing I hadn’t carried that first-aid kit along for nothing. As soon as I wrapped the ankle snugly in an elastic wrap it started to feel better, and most of the pain was gone by morning.

Sunday morning, October 2nd was sunny and calm, and it warmed my heart to know that my bike ride was over, and there was nothing more pressing than exploring the flat neighbourhoods of downtown Kelowna and gazing across the lake at mountains I did not intend to climb.

Looking west across Okanagan Lake from a small waterfront park in Kelowna

Looking west across Okanagan Lake from a small waterfront park in Kelowna

Top photo: a view across Myra Canyon from one of the eighteen trestles in this section of the Kettle Valley Rail Trail.