Step up to a breathtaking view

Montmorency Falls

Taller than Niagara, the Falls carve into the countryside

Less than half an hour from Quebec City by car, Montmorency Falls offers not only a spectacular view of a natural wonder, but several opportunities to actively participate in that wonder.
After paying $12 to park your car (or park outside before the gate and pay nothing), you quickly come face-to-face with the white wall that is the falls, plunging 83 m (272 ft)—higher than Niagara Falls—to join the St. Lawrence River. (Several tour bus lines also visit the falls.)
Upon entering the tram station and gift shop area, you have the option of paying another $12 to take the tram to the top of the escarpment ($14 round-trip) or wandering along a bridge and path to the base of the falls where you are bathed in spray. Here, you are faced with the question of whether you want to climb 487 steps and save yourself some money.
This is not for the weak-of-the-knees, although there are several rest areas along the climb to catch your breath and take photos. To give some sense of the undertaking, I am about 280 lbs but walk quite often, and I was winded and my legs tired upon reaching the summit, but quickly recovered.
Once at the top, you walk along a short trail to reach the bridge that spans the top of the falls with the river on one side and a sheer drop on the other. From here you have a spectacular view of the falls and even Quebec City, and I am happy to report that the bridge is very sturdy, placating those of us who fear heights.
A recent addition to the falls is a dual zipline that allows those brave few to slide right across the face of the cascade. I got nauseous simply watching other people experience the adventure.
And when you get back down to the bottom—my friend and I took the tram down—you can check out the small gift shop and snack counter. Given the stair climb, we think the site is really missing out on an opportunity to market “I survived” t-shirts.
The experience is definitely worth the trip out of town and will give you something to talk about for quite some time (especially if you climbed those ruddy stairs).

Awake with love – Canada

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I have been a very lucky man.

I was lucky enough to be born in a great country. In my almost 50 years, I have not known war. When I have been sick, I have been able to find treatment. When I have been poor, I have been able to find support. When I have been lonely, I have been able to find friends. And a lot of that is because I live in Canada.

Canada is not a perfect country—it is no Shangri-La—but it is a good proxy. And today, July 1, it is 146 years old.

Being so free, however, I have often been complacent about how good things are for me. I have forgotten what went into creating this haven. Forgotten how my life has compared to those living elsewhere.

One of the great things about living in a cosmopolitan centre like Toronto is that I get the opportunity to meet many of the people who started elsewhere.

Several years ago, in the span of just a few months, I played host to a couple of post-doctoral researchers who came to Toronto to work at the Hospital for Sick Children. One was a researcher from Moscow, the other a student from Beijing. Both rented a room in my house, and while the rent money was nice, the life lesson was more valuable.

Wei marveled at the space available in this thriving metropolis; that he could go for a walk and find places where he saw no one. He also marveled at the speed and insanity of NHL hockey on Saturday nights (just because it’s cliché doesn’t, mean it’s untrue).

Sergei was reminded of home in some ways, and amusingly found Torontonians a bit repressed (ah, our Scottish banker roots were showing through). At the same time, when I informed him that yes indeed, public consumption of alcohol was illegal in our parks, he marveled that no one stopped him or that the police didn’t arrive suddenly. And he was grateful at the open welcome he received from everyone including my family. Our cookies were a little stale, but then, I didn’t have the heart to tell him that he’d mistaken dog biscuits for cookies (we call them Sergei cookies, now).

As I would listen to both of these men recount their lives back home, I gained a new appreciation for what I had…and for what I took for granted.

From my geographically central location, I have had the luxury of traveling most of my country. I’ve taken in its historical sites—Fortress of Louisbourg, Quebec Citadel, Plains of Abraham—visited some of the most majestic landscape I could hope to see—the Shield of Northern Ontario, the Fraser River valley, the Bay of Fundy, the Lachine Rapids—participated in amazing cultural festivals—the Stratford Festival, Pride Week, Fringe Toronto, Caribana—and met amazing people.

I am a lucky man to live in such a beautiful, dazzling country.

Happy birthday, Canada. I love you more today than I did yesterday, and I will love you even more tomorrow.

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Maps quest

In another life, I could have been a cartographer. I simply love maps.

Road maps. Old maps. Topographical maps. Biological maps. I love maps.

It is probably truer to say that I love visual information presentation, but let’s stick with maps.

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As a kid, I remember staring at maps that came out of the National Geographic or in my books and literally tracing the courses of rivers with my fingers, trying to understand what their winding patters told me about the lands through which they passed.

I would look at maps in history books, and see how topographical features literally and figuratively changed the course of civilization. There are several reasons, for example, why Montreal sits where it does, but most of them are geographical.

(Magazine art for my article on efforts to understand how proteins bind drug molecules.)

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Later in my life, I would draw maps—at first geographical, but later biological. The biochemical mechanisms that cells and organs use to communicate, to rejuvenate, to function are maps unto themselves, each criss-crossing with others, offering alternate routes to the same destination. The latter point is why diseases like cancer are so hard to treat.

Maps allow me to take journeys, but not just in the physical sense of providing direction. They also give a factual tether to my fantastical imaginings. I can go places I may never visit, understand things unfathomable, while pouring over a map.

And map systems like Google Street View have added to those imaginings. Often, when I write, I will visit the setting of my story on Google Street View to help me paint a more vivid picture of the location. Sometimes this makes my narrative sound more like a travel brochure, but that’s my fault and can easily be handled with editing. The important thing is that the reader gets the essence of what I’m trying to convey.

(Lake Maggiore in northern Italy. Setting for the climax of my murder thriller screenplay)

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My writing itself is a map. Like Google Street View, I am only giving the reader what fits within a specific frame, in essence guiding the reader. But at the same time, I cannot control what the reader thinks or how the reader feels as he or she journeys through my word jungles.

Just as with my childhood adventures of following rivers and mountain chains, the reader is free to layer his or her own imaginings on top of mine. And so, I have written not just one story, but hundreds or thousands.

Hunh?

I guess I became a cartographer, after all.

(Overview of my neighbourhood in downtown Toronto.)

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