Magnificent Mars flies again

This past week has been surreal at our summer home on pristine Sproat Lake in the Alberni Valley. It started July 4th as I was working as conductor aboard the Alberni Pacific Railway’s heritage steam train ride to the McLean Mill National Historic Site. The train was travelling downgrade to Port Alberni when it was suddenly robbed by the Beaufort Gang. A number of well-known valley citizens lost their valuables to the venomous thieves who escaped into the forest on horseback.
Proceeding down the grade, the rail right-of-way emerges from the woodlands near the Chase & Warren Winery. The view across the Alberni Valley at this point is quite spectacular.  Looking towards Sproat Lake we could see a thin wisp of smoke curling skyward from the top of Dog Mountain, the unmistakable sign of the birth of a forest fire. Over the train’s PA system we drew our passenger’s attention to the developing event.
On subsequent trips throughout the day we watched the fire grow ever larger in size. It was several hours before any fire-suppression aircraft appeared on the scene. On all our minds was the fact that the world’s largest firefighting water bomber, Hawaii Mars, was sitting beached on the shoreline of Sproat Lake within sight of the fire. The mighty Mars had been declared redundant by the government two years ago and was not part of their future plans to fight forest fires in British Columbia. This decision would prove to be a colossal mistake this past week. Had the Mars been operational it is likely the fire could have been contained until firefighters arrived on the ground. Instead the result was a massive wildfire that burned an entire mountain and spread to the beaches of Two Rivers and Taylor Arms.
Above: I took this picture of Sproat Lake’s Dog Mountain fire from my boat at 11pm on Tues. evening July 7. An awesome and scary event to witness live.

As the fire raged and expanded towards several shoreline cabins, social media went crazy. Why was the Mars just sitting there onshore? “Get it up and running!” Alberni residents and others further afield cried. For days the government wouldn’t budge, refusing to give the Coulson Group of Companies (a local corporation and owners of the Martin Mars) a contract to get the aircraft back in action. Finally the heat became too much to ignore, not only from the fire, but also from BC citizens of all political stripes. The government finally caved, spewing a stack of political bafflegab why they now considered the Mars Water Bomber part of their arsenal in battling forest fires in the province. The result is the Hawaii Mars will operate on a one-month contract that could be extended if the dry weather continues. Wouldn’t it be a revelation if a government agency just stated that they’d made a mistake in the first place and get on with the job.
As I write this blog the Martin Mars has just landed after completing a number of test flights including a water drop directly in front of the bomber base. Our lake house is exactly under the landing flight path of the mammoth machine and every landing is an exciting event that sets all our cupboard dishes dancing. Although safely high enough, the Mars always seems close enough to clip the treetops surrounding our sundeck.
Everyone here in the Alberni Valley and I’m sure in other parts of the province are relieved the Mars is back in service. She has proven her worth in the past and given the opportunity, no doubt will once again.

Photo: Pat and I along with our grandchildren watched the Hawaii Mars  launched into Sproat Lake early Tuesday morning for the first time in two years. The following evening the huge aircraft did a test flight over Port Alberni with the whole community cheering.
Saturday morning July 11.What is this? Am I hallucinating. I’ve just woken up and heavy rain is falling, the first seen in numerous weeks. I had to rush down to our float to get our boat covered. Last night when I went to bed the weather report was calling for light rain, not a 12-hour long deluge. Will the rain put out the fire? Possibly. However, there’s more summer days ahead and having the Mars Bomber floating in the lake on standby, ready to fly at a moment’s notice is definitely comforting.
And all that jazz….
Two weeks ago I drove down to Victoria to catch some concerts at the TD International Jazz Festival. Packing a case of CD’s, I’d decided from the moment I left home I’d listen to jazz non-stop. No tuning in on the car radio to eavesdrop on the latest talk show rants regarding political scandals. This was to be a few days submerged in music and also do a little touring on my new e-Bike.
Victoria is a superb city for cycling with some excellent bike trails crisscrossing the surrounding communities. Arriving in the Capital City, the first thing I did was ride the Galloping Goose Trail on the old Canadian National Railway grade out to Sooke.
Later the same day I rode a newer paved commuter bike trail that has been laid out between Victoria’s historic E&N railway roundhouse and the Naden Naval Yards in Esquimalt. The only drawback to accessing the trail is one must ride smack in the middle of vehicle traffic across the old Johnson Street lift bridge. The railway bridge that was situated alongside the vehicle bridge and had incorporated the separated bike path lanes has been removed to make way for the new bridge currently under construction. When finished the new bridge will include designated bikes lanes and will act as the trailhead to serve the region’s Galloping Goose, Lochside, and E&N biking trails.
After bike riding most of the day it was time to hear some live jazz. The first festival event I took in was a two hour performance by the  Christine Jensen Jazz Orchestra. They were incredible. Made up of 19 musicians from Montreal the band was world class. You wouldn't hear big band jazz played any better anywhere. Jensen is a beautiful arranger and a fair portion of the program was based on her Juno Award winning album Treelines. Currently she is working on a new work that will be jazz interpretations of the paintings of Emily Carr. The concert also featured Christine’s sister Ingrid on trumpet who is based in New York City. For those blog readers who may not know, both began their music studies in the Nanaimo school system and have gone on to achieve world wide success, like another Nanaimo bred musician by the name of Diana Krall. Hats off to CBC Radio and The Canada Council for underwriting the costs of Jensen’s concert. Touring a large jazz band across the country is a rare event these days considering the current political climate relating to support for the arts.
The second concert I attended was a piano trio called GoGo Penguin from Manchester England. The group’s dazzling improvisations were based on everything from Shostakovich to the British group Massive Attack. Pianist Chris Illingworth boggled my mind with his ability to split his brain in two to state one melody with his right hand and another with his left with such breathtaking precision of metre. It was uncanny how he made it work so seamlessly. Nick Blacka’s huge sound on the double bass and drummer Rob Turner’s unyielding staccato styled rhythms filled every corner of Herman’s Jazz Club where the concert was held. The overall trance-like musicality of the group is something that has to be heard live to be believed.

Above: Christine and Ingrid Jensen perform an improvised duet backed by Christine’s big band at the TD International Jazz Festival in Victoria. 
 Below: New flag added to our float flag pole on Sproat Lake

Did you know Vancouver Island has its own flag? I didn’t until I noticed a Nanaimo neighbor flying from their balcony an unusual flag containing the Union Jack in one corner. Unable to find the flag listed on a world flag site on the internet, I asked our neighbor one evening while out walking with my wife Pat, what country the flag represented. To my surprise I learned it was the official flag for the Colony of Vancouver Island. 
Aside from having the Union Jack, the flag also features the trident of Neptune (for the ocean), a pine cone to represent the Island’s forests, and a beaver to represent the fur trade. It was approved by Queen Victoria in 1865. However events ensured a short shelf life. In 1865 the Colony of British Columbia and the Colony of Vancouver Island merged so the designed flag was never flown. Our neighbor had purchased his from the Victoria Flag Shop on Fort Street. I immediately ordered one.

This year starting Canada Day, on our Sproat Lake float flagpole we not only raised the Maple Leaf, but Vancouver Island’s very own official flag.