Winter City

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I have a very specific memory of Edmonton in the winter, from about a decade ago. Some friends and I were going to the Black Dog pub on Whyte Ave, and it was cold. We rushed down the street in the blustery winter darkness, burst through the door, and my glasses immediately fogged up (as they do). As I was standing there, thawing, I felt so… welcome. I recall the inviting coziness of being indoors where it was warm, on that frigid night. It was so very Edmonton, so very hygge. Something clicked that night.

Another memory, years later: it was the early days of the Winter Light festival, and Montréal’s Circus Orange was scheduled to perform in Churchill Square. I honestly had no idea what to expect, except the description sounded cool, and by this point I was hooked on everything winter-festival. There was no way I would miss it.

As in the first story, it was ridiculously cold that day. A little too cold for most people, so the Three Bananas Café at Churchill Square was jam packed with attendees who would otherwise have been outdoors. When the performance began, many decided it wasn’t worth it and stayed inside, but my partner-at-the-time and I braved the elements to see what was happening.

It was… brilliant. Music boomed as a wacky, pyrotechnic, gigantic tricycle wound its way around Churchill Square, eventually stopping. That’s when my jaw dropped: the front wheel of the tricycle lifted into the air, performer running and leaping inside as if it was a hamster wheel, the entire contraption shooting fireworks every which way. Not only was it a great show, but it was a formative moment for my understanding of what a large-scale outdoor winter festival could be. Look, I found a video.

Winter Light was an important step for Edmonton. A three-year pilot project that was eventually disbanded because it was too successful. Go figure. While it may not be around anymore, many of the events have carried on independently, such as the former Baba Yaga Trail Adventure/Mill Creek Adventure Walk (elements of which transitioned into what is now the Flying Canoë Volant – see below for details). It also sparked a love of, and pride in, winter in our city. A season that was once detested and poorly executed (who remembers BrightNights?) was suddenly bursting with possibility. Soon after, the City of Edmonton began developing its WinterCity Strategy, a municipal initiative to change perceptions of Edmonton into the season being an asset, rather than a burden. If you have a bit of time, check out the numerous goals that were identified through this project. Every so often, bureaucracy can be transformative.

I’m writing this while looking out my apartment window at snow that hasn’t stopped falling for a few days now. It’s quiet and crunchy and sparkly. Don’t get me wrong – I love a glorious prairie summer day, but this is Edmonton, and winter is how we do.

What does the future hold for Edmonton in the winter? Besides the goals of the WinterCity Strategy, I dream of a city that dives even further into a love of winter. I want people to recognize that it’s okay – and encouraged – to love winter. I want to flip the script. For example, people often complain about the oppressive darkness of winter. While Seasonal Affective Disorder is a real challenge for many, when I think about my favourite winter memories, most of them happen under the cover of darkness.

For example, at one point a group of friends and I went skating every Monday night at the Legislature rink. One particular evening, I brought a package of sparklers with me – let’s say twenty. Partway through our skate, we lit the sparklers and skated around, joyfully, exuberant, sparkling like fireflies. Skating + sparklers = a very good time. We turned the darkness into an experience you can’t have in most cities. Most Edmontonians don’t seem to realize how lucky we are to have a climate so unique and full of possibility.

Little things like that can reframe your perspective on a situation and turn it into a beautiful thing. Metaphorically, that’s how I feel about winter in Edmonton – and our city overall. It is within our power to see this season, and our isolated prairie home, differently. You just have to have good boots, and a good attitude.

That said, and this is important, I also want the city to reduce barriers to loving winter, for those who have a harder time of it. I refuse to sugarcoat winter. My perspective is privileged. I can afford warmth, and I can wade through an uncleared sidewalk when necessary. From mobility issues to not being able to afford winter gear to poor urban planning, there are significant barriers to enjoying winter for many. I have to check my enthusiasm for the season sometimes, because it can be very difficult for people to live in this climate. People can die in this weather, and sadly, they do. So, I also dream of a city that supports its most vulnerable during the coldest months of the year.

Tip: If you see someone struggling outside, call 211 and they will dispatch the Bissell Centre 24-hour crisis team.

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These days, there is so much to do in Edmonton during the winter. Now that the madness of the holidays has passed, there are a ton of events coming up that will help you love the season. Allow me to be your winter tour guide and inspire you to check out some of the following events:

  • Ice Castle in Hawrelak Park (ongoing until it melts): It’s baa-aaack! I was there on opening night, and it’s simply glorious. Step inside and be transported you to a different world… a world where the cold doesn’t bother you anyway. (Sorry, had to.)
  • Sunday Swing ‘n’ Skate at City Hall (January 8-February 26, 2017): Ice skating plus live swing, jazz, and big band music at City Hall. On February 14th, there is a Valentine’s Day Disco Skate.
  • Deep Freeze: A Byzantine Winter Festival (January 14 & 15, 2017): Arts on the Ave hosts two signature festivals each year, Kaleido Festival in the fall, and Deep Freeze in the winter. Attendees can expect everything from an ice slide to snow sculptures to deep freezer races to glass blowing… and so much more!
  • Ice on Whyte (January 26-29 & February 2-5, 2017): Ice sculptures on Whyte Ave. Self-explanatory. Always a good time.
  • Flying Canoë Volant (February 3 & 4, 2017): One of my favourite winter events. Descend into Mill Creek Ravine on paths lined with lanterns, interactive light installations, projections, teepees and a Métis village, warming fires, and ambiance up the wazoo. They always mix it up, but that’s what you can usually expect. It’s not always the best idea to wander into a ravine late at night, but do it anyway.
  • Canadian Birkebeiner (February 10-11, 2017): I have never seen it for myself, but if you’re into cross-country skiing or being outside, this might interest you. The Vikings’ Feast Banquet and Nordic Fair are particularly intriguing this year.
  • Silver Skate Festival (February 10-20, 2017): From snow sculptures to a folk trail to lover’s lane to fire sculpture (just look at the photos – 1, 2), this festival in Hawrelak Park celebrates its 27th year in 2017.
  • Parka Patio at Latitude 53 (March 12, 2017): Installation art, DJS, food/drink, and a silent auction. Okay, so this is a straight-up fundraiser rather than a festival persay, but it goes to show the creative ways we can enjoy our city in winter. Plus it’s fun.
  • Alberta Legislature holiday lights: Visiting the Legislature and taking in the beautiful light display is a holiday tradition for many, including myself. I just saw them tonight, as my bus drove past, so there’s still time to see them this year!
  • Various other activities: Tobogganing. Skating. The Freezeway at Victoria Park Oval – or another skating path, such as the ice trail in Kenilworth.

And, since this is my blog and not yours, I will humour with my latest favourite indoor winter event: the Chinook Series (February 9-19, 2017). I’ll talk about theatre and arts events in another post, but the timing is right to mention this. Think: warped and winter-y younger sibling of the Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival, bringing together Workshop West Playwrights’ Theatre, Azimuth Theatre, and Fringe Theatre Adventures. If you enjoy boundary-pushing theatre, this is for you. Last year, I was lucky enough to see almost every play in the inaugural festival, and I was in withdrawal for weeks. So good.

Of course, there are other winter events that have passed for the season, but for the sake of completeness:

  • Candy Cane Lane: It isn’t what it used to be, but visiting Candy Cane Lane is one of the most quintessentially Edmonton experiences of the season. Read about its history here.
  • Downtown Business Association Holiday Light-Up: Every year, Edmontonians are invited to gather downtown for the official light-up of the hallmark winter lights that adorn lampposts in the downtown core, as well as the tree in Churchill Square.
  • Festival of Trees: An Edmonton classic. Still the best place I’ve found to see impressive gingerbread houses, and what’s more “holiday” than gingerbread houses? Also, one time I saw a young girl singing in a choir turn green and vomit mid-song. You definitely needed to know that. Memories.
  • Santa’s Parade of Lights: Anyone who lived in Edmonton in the ’80s and ’90s will remember the (and here’s where I really editorialize) piss-poor excuse for an indoor Santa Claus Parade. Well, last year some changes were made, and the parade moved outdoors! It’s tiny, it’s adorable, it’s perfect for now. I look forward to seeing how it evolves from here.
  • All is Bright on 124: Music, street performers, sleigh rides, and more.
  • Christmas Reflections at Fort Edmonton Park: Take a trip back to the 1880s and 1920s at, for lack of a better description, this quaint and adorable annual winter event.
  • Zoominescence: A Festival of Light: I’m really not a zoo person, but I am definitely a light-in-the-winter-darkness person. This event features light installations at the Edmonton Valley Zoo, and word on the street is that it gets better every year. It’ll have to do, at least until we see something on the scale of Montréal’s Luminothérapie. We’re getting there.
  • ETS Christmas Lights Tours: Hop on a bus and look at Christmas lights while staying warm. Fun!
  • Various houses: While Christmas at Bob’s (75 Ave & 108 St) is my personal favourite, there are numerous holiday light displays to choose from. Sadly, we have lost some well-known displays, such as Maisie’s Magical Christmas House. Overall, these houses seem to be picking up where Candy Cane Lane left off.

Fire up those bookmarks. Edmonton, we’ve got this. See you at a winter event sometime, okay?

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Christmas at Bob’s, December 2016

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Ice Castle, December 2016

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A grainy photo of the oh-so-cute Santa’s Parade of Lights, November 2015

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Lights at City Hall/Churchill Square, first day of snow 2015

Next week, I’ll be diving into my many non-Instagram photos to give you more of a visual tour of my favourite parts of the city. Until then, stay warm.

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2017: Year of the Blog

It’s a peculiar thing, being one of the people who never left.

The holidays are always exciting. Friends come home to visit in various combinations, and I find myself in bars more than usual. This year, I saw nine different former Edmontonians now scattered around the world. The holidays are also a time to see people who live here who I rarely see. All in all, I love a good winter holiday reunion. It allows me to indulge my fantasy that everyone lives here again (life is complicated, but I can dream).

There’s something about reuniting with old friends that gets me thinking about the concepts of place, home, and change. Over the past week, I explored the city with a fresh perspective. Friends and I had numerous conversations about what has changed and what has stayed the same. The biggest surprises to those who hadn’t visited for a while were the closure of Funky Pickle pizza, move of Metro Cinema into the Garneau Theatre, demolition of the old New City building on 101 St & Jasper Ave, and the changes around the arena district. I advised them to check out the piecemeal destruction of the old Garneau neighbourhood, new buildings on the MacEwan campus downtown, changes in the McCauley/Norwood/Alberta Ave communities, and the city’s ever-expanding suburban waistline. We looked at old houses and told stories that once felt so present, but nowadays exist as amusing and distant anecdotes from a previous life.

Then just like that, life resumed as normal. Celebrating the new year involved gatherings of friends who do live here. Today, I took the same bus that I’ve taken for years, through the same section of downtown that I have passed through daily since I was a teenager, but to a destination that was not normal to me until recently. Old things felt even more sentimental, and the new things highlighted the inevitability of change. Without the injection of a previous life into my reality, I looked again at a city that has been many things to me over the years.

Not leaving your hometown means moving daily within a world saturated with memory. I think that might be why I’m compelled to capture it.

On that note…

YEGuncovered.com is back! It’s my new year’s resolution. I’ve been so busy offline that it has been difficult to dedicate enough time to this blog. This year, I will be updating weekly on Mondays. Expect cloyingly sentimental posts about Edmonton-related things, on topics such as to-be-determined, buildings-I-love, and memories-that-strike-me.

Because I want to remember. I need to remember.

Until next week.

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Photos by Ester Malzahn. Instagram: @thehoove

Coming Soon

Greetings, friends.

If you’ve checked this blog recently, you may have noticed that my posts have slowed. to. a. halt. Life has been incredibly busy – three jobs, one post-secondary program, one life that I’m attempting to live – and I didn’t see it coming. I haven’t forgotten about YEGuncovered.com, though. In fact, I think about it a lot.

I’ve kept the Facebook and Twitter pages for YEGuncovered active in the meantime. I also update my own personal Instagram account, and share my Edmonton-themed photos on the aforementioned Facebook and Twitter pages.

Let’s be honest, most of my photos are of Edmonton anyway, so why start another Instagram account? 

I promise to revive this blog ASAP. I have so many ideas, and so many photos – just give me a bit more time. In the meantime, at least we have social media.

Sound good?

Don’t forget about me, and I won’t forget about you.

Talk to you soon. ❤

Hello, Summer.

The city is buzzing.

It does this, every year. People always go a little haywire when spring is here, but by late June, the excitement in the air is palpable. People are losing their minds over summer by the time it arrives, and late June on the prairies is ultimate summer. Gorgeous, sunny days, not too many mosquitoes yet, not gross late summer heat. People here go nuts for summer, because they spend so many months of the year in cold darkness.

Looking back at the winter, it’s slightly difficult to imagine that it ever existed. It strikes me as dark, and quiet. A time of hibernation, and focusing inwards. I enjoy winter – even the outdoor stuff – but my winter is a time for school and lectures and theatre and learning.

Then, inevitably, comes warmth and light. The air is electric, this time of year. The seasons affect us on a deep level. Maybe a molecular level. Something changes in us, whatever that may be individually. I’m also excited to see this place blossom; there hasn’t always been this much going on.

Today, I worked a Save Edmonton’s Downtown Footbridge concert-on-the-footbridge as part of #DIYcity. I’ve joined the campaign team since my last post about the footbridge, and it was a great afternoon of talking to people about their senses of place. People are eager and willing to love their city. Issues are complex, of course, but connecting with people on a grassroots level is so satisfying.

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Vibrating from a day talking to people who love their city, I walked downtown toward the National Aboriginal Day celebrations when the concert was done. Approaching Churchill Square from the southeast, it struck me that there was stuff happening everywhere.

A ball hockey tournament was blasting music behind Churchill Square, a space long-underused. People were swarming downtown hotels, what with the women’s World Cup in town. The fountains in front of City Hall were packed with squealing kids and adults with their pants not-quite-rolled-up-high-enough-but-whatever-it’s-summer.

An ice cream dude was even selling Choco Tacos! You know you’ve hit it big when you can buy Choco Tacos. No joke: those tacos are legendary.

The Works (the art and design festival) is on right now, bringing with it all the arty infrastructure in Churchill Square. Food trucks line 99 Street, and now that 102A Ave is blocked off between 99 St and 100 St, it’s filled with a strange bean bag-plant-something seating area.

June 21st was National Aboriginal Day, and the city continued its festivities (which have been running throughout the week). I’m frankly hesitant about the fact that the city planned #DIYcity for the same day, but Churchill Square was packed. Families hung out in the grassy area. I hung out for a while, listened to the music, and enjoyed the atmosphere.

I then checked out the RISE Heart Garden. It was beautiful.

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Overall, it was a beautiful, perfect day interspersed with inspiring moments. From personal stories from visitors to the bridge, to the heavy subject matter that was being discussed on stage at National Aboriginal Day, to the RISE heart garden, it gave me a lot to think about.

Edmonton still has a ways to go, to compete with the sheer volume of events in bigger cities. Still, the city we have today has evolved from the city I try to capture in this blog. The city I saw today has nothing to apologize for. It is now a metropolis that retains a distinct community vibe, as demonstrated when the concert on the footbridge event wrapped up, and people just started jamming on the footbridge.

Happy summer, Edmonton.

The Incomparable Chez Pierre Mural

One of the most significant challenges I’ve faced while rolling out this blog is the ability to consistently provide quality updates when the going gets… busy.

As I’ve mentioned previously, I’m totally jazzed about all the exciting happenings around Edmonton these days. So, I went and volunteered for everything, as well as am doing some work for organizations around town. This is all very fun and enjoyable (I’m pleased to say that I’m doing work I like! hooray!), but it is a balancing act.

While it has been a couple of weeks since my last post, rest assured that I’ve been trolling around town, taking photos every chance I get. I’ve prepared a fun backlog of adventures, and I’ll be sharing them with you in the next few days. To tide you over, I thought I’d share a slice of downtown that most Edmontonians will recognize.

Introducing: the Chez Pierre mural on 105 Street and 100 Avenue.

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Notably, this happened to be “IMG_0069” when I transferred the images onto my computer. Insert giggly twelve-year-old reaction here.

This mural has been kicking around downtown for what feels like forever. At least since the ’90s, although talking to friends, there are mixed opinions about when it went up.

I’ve made it as far as the doorway, and never further inside. Being naive and freshly adult, I did not realize – until the doorman informed us – that everyone has to buy a drink at a strip club. No freeloading, the way I was used to. But… but… I was broke! It makes sense now, to retain some control over the ogling, but it didn’t occur to me at the time. Due to my hurting financial situation, I left, and haven’t been back since. Partly because strip clubs aren’t really my thing, but mostly because I’m still broke.

The rest of the building is pretty interesting, too.

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During my early 20s, my roommate informed me that a guy we regularly saw wandering downtown was the real Chez Pierre. I doubt the validity of this claim, but interestingly enough, about two blocks before I got to the mural to take photos, guess who I passed in the street? The “real” Chez Pierre. I hadn’t seen him in years. Maybe it’s true. They do look very similar.


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Chez Pierre mural, you are one-of-a-kind.

West Edmonton Mall: Then & Now

Welcome back. Today, I’m profiling one of the most controversial Edmonton institutions. Three words: West Edmonton Mall.

Anyone who lives, or has lived, in Edmonton has their own peculiar relationship with West Edmonton Mall. If you aren’t from this city, it’s likely one of the few things you know about us.

Very early in my life, I recall looking up my hometown in any travel books I found. If it was even mentioned, Edmonton was typically referred to disdainfully as a boring oil city with a gigantic mall and not much else. Once the Internet arrived, I then spent a lot of time looking up travel information in general. Between reading about faraway destinations, I would inevitably look up Edmonton, almost always finding a variation on that same theme. Boring, oil-focused, avoid at all costs. Big mall, yada yada. I guess I was always exploring my sense of place.

It’s no wonder outsiders had, and often still have, such a poor opinion of this city. On the flip side, it’s no wonder we’ve developed such an inferiority complex. It’s what the world has declared about us!

It was difficult not to resent West Edmonton Mall during those years. “We have a beautiful river valley too,” I always insisted. On the rare occasion that someone would choose to visit Edmonton, there was always a stop on the itinerary for West Edmonton Mall. Why would they go to a mall when they could go outside, I wondered.

A note for the “history” books: While many people claim the common shorthand for West Edmonton Mall is “The Mall”, I never called it that. My friends and I always referred to as “West Ed”. Maybe it’s a north side thing.

A Gradual Shift

Then, something strange happened. I begrudgingly began to appreciate West Edmonton Mall. Say it ain’t so.

Maybe it was the general shift in attitude toward Edmonton. Rather than West Ed being the primary focus of all tourist activity in the city, it became one of many options. Perhaps it was the creeping influence of nostalgia, or a series of realizations that key items were missing.

Just yesterday, I realized the “burger guy” statue in the newer food court has been removed. People were upset when they realized the whale statue was gone, but that was only months after it had been moved in order to fit a seating area for Victoria’s Secret.

What else has quietly disappeared? I wonder if we would be surprised at our own reactions before these things were initially lost.

A significant turning point for me was in 2013, when Omar Mouallem wrote a fantastic piece for Avenue Magazine called “The Great Indoors“, in which he described spending three consecutive days inside the mall. It got the wheels of memory spinning, and now, I find myself defending West Edmonton Mall on certain levels.

The Truly Awful

Only some levels, though. While my fondness for Edmonton grew over the years, it took longer to find anything to appreciate about West Ed.

Yesterday, while taking photos for this post, I got turned around and wanted to find the whale sculpture in its temporary location. I asked a teenage girl working at a sunglasses stand which way to go, and she enthusiastically pointed me in the exact opposite direction. It made it about ten feet before realizing I’d been had. “This is what I hate about this place,” I grumbled to myself.

Then there are the rambling, wide groups of tourists preventing you from getting where you’re going, and the hoards of teenagers who are, quite frankly, probably intolerable even to themselves.

Then there’s the mall’s history of unnecessarily displaying animals for entertainment. There have been dolphins, flamingos, penguins, peacocks, and more. Today, they still have sea lions.

And of course the terrible “tradition” of dummies jumping into the lagoon.

Childhood Impressions

Over the years, West Edmonton Mall played a number of roles in my life.

As a child growing up on the far north side, going to West Ed was always an adventure. It felt like another world, far across the city at a time when I had little to no independence. We visited about once a year, or when we had guests from out of town. After all, it was the place to go!

It was especially fun when my family visited from overseas, because we would splurge on the extras. Those were the only times I went on the submarine ride, which even as a kid, I knew was a weak showing. I’m glad to remember how cramped and sweaty it was.

These were the glory days of Fantasyland, before Disney threatened legal action and they changed their name to Galaxyland. There was the Drop of Doom, which would slowly and suspensefully climb to the roof before sending its riders into free-fall. There was the pirate ship that swung upside down; you knew it was running when you heard the “whoosh”. There was the train winding its way around the amusement park and stopping above the children’s play area.

The children’s area was a magical wonderland in itself. There were kid-sized cubes to crawl through, rope bridges and slides, and mirrored nooks tucked away to excite my overstimulated imagination. Ask anyone who grew up around Edmonton during this era about the play area, and there’s a good chance they will suddenly get very excited.

The World Waterpark was where I fell in love with waterslides, especially the original “lazy river“-style tube ride. It turned me into the river-floating fiend I am today. Then, they added bungee jumping above the wave pool. Now there’s surfing, and a loop-de-loop waterslide.

In June 1986, West Ed made the news in the worst way when three people were killed in an accident on the Mindbender rollercoaster. My family visited from England a few months later, and my daredevil cousin rode the rollercoaster. I’ve still never been on it.

One of my favourite childhood authors wrote a book set at the mall (Eric Wilson’s Code Red at the Supermall), and at one point in the story, sharks from the lagoon are in danger of swimming into the wave pool. I knew that would have been impossible, given the layout of the mall, but forgave him because so few books are set here.

Other childhood West Ed memories include: staring endlessly at the Rube Goldberg machine that was tucked away in the corner, watching the spinning puffy paint t-shirt machines in awe, serious discussions about how fancy the theme rooms at the Fantasyland Hotel really are, stopping to watch the dancing fountains (especially the one that jumped over your head in the food court), wishing I could ride the scooters, dubious claims that it was the biggest mall in the world, the days when the mini golf course was still great, hearing the term “mall rats” for the first time (not like that), the media frenzy around Hooters opening on Bourbon Street, and much more.

Teen Angst

In my teen years, my best friend and I got into the habit of riding the bus across the city and going to Johnny Rockets. For those unfamiliar with the chain, it was a 1950s-style diner with jukeboxes on the table. The servers would dance whenever “Rockin’ Robin” came on. They had the best milkshakes. Now, the Johnny Rockets is an Orange Julius and Yogen Früz. So it goes.

It was during those years that I went to some of the Rock ‘n’ Ride parties at Galaxyland. A lot of kids growing up in Edmonton in the ’90s and ’00s have stories about Rock ‘n’ Ride. Basically, it was a teenage rave in the amusement park. They were cancelled after a girl tragically died from a bad drug reaction in 2009.

It was around then that the music video for Captain Tractor performing “The Last Saskatchewan Pirate” (that I have previously posted) was filmed on the replica Santa María ship. The public was invited, but I was in junior high and had classes. I was too young to understand that the correct course of action, if only for future heritage nostalgia purposes, would have been to skip school and go.

I’m An Adult Now (At Least On Paper)

When I reached legal drinking age, my relationship with West Ed evolved again.

This was the era of going to Red’s – then Ed’s, then the Edmonton Event Centre – to see bands play. It was always the worst place to see a show, but if you really wanted to see the band, you went. Some of the more memorable shows I saw there were The Flaming Lips, Gogol Bordello, and Arcade Fire.

I warred regularly with security over mandatory coat checks (I once convinced them there’s a law prohibiting mandatory coat checks and arrogantly quoted fictional legislation, all because I’m cheap). I always resented travelling so far to have a mostly mediocre time, and eventually gave up altogether.

Around the corner from the stage was the bowling alley, featuring glow-in-the-dark bowling. At least Red’s served decent Caesars.

There were other nightclubs in the mall, too, but you’ll have to ask someone else about those.

It was around this time that Phase IV was completed, with businesses like SilverCity (movie theatre), Playdium (arcade), and HMV moving in. There was a fire-breathing dragon at SilverCity that was a destination in itself. SilverCity was the first theatre in town to have separate businesses inside the theatrre complex. It was there that I saw Star Wars Episode I on opening night. The fire-breathing dragon was taken down last year, but it lives on in numerous YouTube videos (1, 2, 3). Playdium and HMV are gone too, but SilverCity lives on as the Scotiabank Theatre.

Oh, and sometimes movies have been filmed at West Ed.

At one point, the roof over the ice rink collapsed during a summer hailstorm.

Valentine’s Day Extravaganza

My favourite memory involving West Ed, if I had to choose, happened on February 14, 2009. It was Valentine’s Day. Probably the best Valentine’s Day.

I dragged a group of my single friends to the Wild West Shooting Range. Of course they’ve got a shooting range – right? Because we were on a mission to have the most ridiculous Valentine’s Day ever, we then moved on to the temporary segway course in Phase IV, where we met the most erratic segway instructor ever. He told us about his supposed half-Icelandic/half-Japanese Internet girlfriend, and demonstrated how he could turn his head almost all the way around. It was a scene straight out of a horror movie.

After that, we aired and burned our grievances, and beat up an “effigy”. It was actually a blow-up doll from the now-closed San Francisco store at the mall, and we felt great.

West Edmonton Mall Today

Nowadays, West Edmonton Mall is a very different place. I’m rarely there anymore.

So much of the mall I once knew has changed: the submarine ride is gone, meaning we can’t joke anymore about how the mall has more subs than the Canadian Navy. The corniness of Bourbon Street and Europa Boulevard have faded, and the theatre in the newer food court is long closed. Zellers became a Target store, and then Target left Canada, leaving that corner of the mall closed indefinitely.

Whenever I visit, I notice more changes. Yesterday, I realized the McDonald’s in the newer food court has disappeared, and the front of Circuit City has been pushed back to make room for a store. Sorry teenage boys, no more DDR peacocking displays for you. There was also a visible increase of booths and carts set up in the middle of the halls. It seems like a whole new economic category of rental space has been established, and the mall is hungry for sales.

The only thing that I’m pretty sure hasn’t changed is the sportscar up for raffle. I cynically suspect that same car has been there for years.

Notably, in February 2015, the mall made the news when it was listed as a possible terrorist target. Cheerleading teams pulled out of an upcoming competition, shoppers defiantly shopped, and there was no doubt that times have changed since the mall opened in 1981.

Why Should Anyone Care?

I celebrate Edmonton knowing full well that it is not Berlin, Montréal, New York, or Vancouver. It’s a small town growing into its big city identity, bringing with it some significant problems that should not be dismissed. If anything, in promoting this city, I encourage people to protect it and fight to make it better.

West Edmonton Mall is a difficult place to appreciate, especially when it doesn’t seem to understand its own kitsch value.

Looking back, it has reflected many significant societal changes, and I understand it better from this perspective. I spent my youth focusing my righteous indignation on malls and calling for a return to friendlier shopping districts. Now, there’s almost a quaint appeal to indoor shopping malls. At least they’re navigable on foot, rather than essentially requiring people to drive from store to store.

A lot of smaller stores at West Ed have disappeared, and it feels more homogeneous and modern. I remember the tucked-away knick-knack shops above Fantasyland, the ’90s educational toy store boom, the craft store with the dollhouse section, and the forever-missed Kites & Other Delights and its model train section (I’m drawn to life in miniature). There are still a few shops like that left, and hopefully they will stick around a while longer. West Edmonton Coin & Stamp is still around, and reminds me of a younger West Edmonton Mall. Go there. Spend your money.

The shopping mall is simply an older consumer model. These days, we have South Edmonton Common, the obnoxious big box store wasteland on the far south side of the city. IKEA used to be at West Ed, but it has moved to South Edmonton Common. Many smaller shopping malls feel quite desolate these days, while others are modernizing through extensive renovations (Southgate and Londonderry come to mind).

Now, more than anything, I am compelled to capture my memories.

So, I went to West Ed. Saw a movie. Took some photos. Not a comprehensive sample, but hopefully enough to get a taste of West Edmonton Mall circa 2015.

Where a fire-breathing dragon once hung.

Looking up at the ceiling where a fire-breathing dragon once hung.

The Santa María and lagoon:

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No more submarine ride:

The submarines used to be on the right-hand side of the bridge.

The submarines used to be on the right-hand side of the bridge.

Submarine-related stuff used to be here.

Submarine-related stuff used to be here.

World Waterpark:

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New candy store where the old candy store once stood (outside the waterpark):

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Europa Boulevard:

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Mini golf:

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Ice Palace:

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“Old” food court:

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Brianna graciously reenacts the lost burger man statue in the “new” food court:

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T&T:

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Galaxyland:

New, much-less-awesome pirate ship ride. It doesn't go upside down!

New, much-less-awesome pirate ship ride. It doesn’t go upside down!

Drop of Doom replacement ride.

Drop of Doom replacement ride.

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Finally, the whale! As you can see, it’s still under construction, but I’m so pleased to have it back:

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Do you have memories of West Edmonton Mall that you would like to share? Tell me about them in the comments.

Pirates of the North Saskatchewan River

***Sorry for the silence, folks. I somehow (despite using it all the time) misplaced my DSLR camera battery. This forced me to change plans, but I’m back with this tale of a recent river float. Unfortunately, I had to take the photos on my phone.***

Greetings, earthlings. This weekend, I floated down a river.

In classic Edmonton style, spring has flown by, and suddenly it’s hot outside. This meant it was time for the ritual tradition of floating the North Saskatchewan River.

Many Edmontonians assume that they cannot use the river for some reason or another. Often it’s because they believe the river is “dirty”. I remember growing up, hearing stories about how you had to get a tetanus shot if you so much as touched the water. Well, here’s the real deal: it does get a bit grimy as you approach downtown. If you float as far as Goldbar, the smell of the waste treatment centre is pretty gnarly. Overall, though, it’s a beauty of a river.

The origin myth of our group of floaters is simple: one day, our friend Tyson (who attended this weekend’s float) was sitting beside the North Saskatchewan River. He wanted to get to a spot down-river, and realized the easiest way to get there would be to launch a boat and float to it. The next time he came back, he brought a boat and – ta da! – the dream was born. It grew from there, and as a group, we have gone many times together. Over the years, more and more people have been on the river on any given day, which is exciting.

A warning for anyone who reads this and is compelled to float the North Saskatchewan: go for it! Have fun!! However, keep in mind that the North Saskatchewan River is a beast and she must be respected. A couple of days before this float, a 33-year-old strong swimmer died when he dove into the river and never came up. To be clear, I am not responsible for anyone who hurts themselves or drowns because of this post. Be careful out there!

Things To Remember When Floating the North Saskatchewan

  • While it is possible to float calmer rivers, such as Pembina, on an inner tube or cheap inflatable, I do not recommend this on the North Saskatchewan. Our gang has invested in higher-quality inflatable fishing dinghies, mostly Sevylor Fish Hunters (4- or 6-person). These can be found at outdoor stores or Army & Navy (and such).
  • Don’t forget paddles and life jackets. Carry a pump and something for emergency patches. (We have learned from experience that a maxi pad makes an excellent emergency patch. Sometimes it works so well that you’ll keep it on your boat for a whole year!)
  • Bring water, snacks, a hat, and sunscreen. The breeze on the river is deceiving and the sun will sap your life juices, so hydrate-hydrate-hydrate! Bring a bag for garbage and zip-locks or dry bags for anything you don’t want to get wet (don’t forget that includes lighters).
  • On process: you typically leave a vehicle at the docking point that, when you get off the river, can transport the drivers back to the launch point. They then drive back together, reminiscing about the excellent day, and return with their cars. While on the river, use carabiners to hook the boats together and create a floatilla.
  • If you have any questions about floating, the Floaters Club group on Facebook is an excellent resource.

The weather cooperated as we made our way down to the Whitemud to inflate and launch. We would be floating to Dawson Bridge, with some of the buccaneers getting off the river at Emily Murphy Park.

Now please sit back and enjoy these photos c/o glorious phone camera technology (apologies for the image quality).

We set off from the Whitemud, and were immediately greeted with the beautiful North Saskatchewan. Hello river!

We set off from the Whitemud, and were immediately greeted with the beautiful North Saskatchewan. Hello river!

We passed the “End of the World”, aka. what is left of Keillor Road. It was a hot media topic in the 1990s; I remember it being all over the news. Now, it’s a controversial hangout spot (the locals are not a fan of it, but people keep going back because it’s truly spectacular). The remains of the road jut out into the river valley, and from above, it looks as if a giant has chopped into the river valley with an axe. There are always people hanging out there when we float past, and today was no exception. We waved, they waved back, and everything was beautiful.

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It was a gorgeous day.

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We floated past the footbridge that joins Hawrelak and Buena Vista Parks:

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As we rounded the wide loop surrounding the Mayfair Golf Course, we could see the finished Pearl high rise. In construction last season, we watched it grow and alter the Edmonton skyline.

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We passed under Groat Road and got a clearer view of the Pearl.

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There were swallow nests in the cliffs:

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And, sometimes, layers of yellow sulphur:

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Then, in the distance stood the iconic High Level Bridge. The streetcar was hanging out in the middle of the bridge as we approached. I wonder if the passengers commented on the barge of inflatable boats, slowly making its way toward them.

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Next came the Walterdale Bridge. Like so many things in this city, it will not be around for much longer. The finish date was pushed back to next year, so the incessant, rhythmic “clang-clang-clang” noise of the construction has stopped for now. Because it’s such an important artery for traffic, they are building around the old bridge, which will be demolished once the new one is complete. That will be a sad, sad day, as I have a soft spot for bridges, and especially the Walterdale. They call it the “singing bridge”, referring the tones you hear driving across the bridge.

You can watch a simulation of the new Walterdale Bridge here.

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Then, of course, another gorgeous piece of Edmonton architecture that is (probably) also doomed: the Rossdale Power Plant. I love the building and wish it could be repurposed into something. Anything. Just don’t take this away too…

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We wound around Rossdale, aware that the city was right behind the trees. We passed the so-called (by us) “Falls of Despair”, otherwise known as the remains of Mill Creek. At one point, the creek flowed into the North Saskatchewan, but after Mill Creek was developed, it was diverted underground and has never been the same.

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Eventually, downtown Edmonton came into view.

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We passed under the James MacDonald Bridge.

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We then passed under the Low Level Bridge, and through the heart of downtown Edmonton.

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We snuck up to our gigantic cousin, the Edmonton Queen Riverboat. We passed Louise McKinney Park, and as usual, people gawked as we drifted by. Some probably-homeless guys were having a time down by the river and may have asked to join us. We may have politely declined. I’m not sure; it was late in the day.

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Then came the majestic Cloverdale (Downtown) Footbridge, the subject of one of my previous posts. As I mentioned, you should check out the Save Edmonton’s Downtown Footbridge website.

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The day drew to a close as we passed Riverdale and approached Dawson Bridge. We were exhausted from the heat and hours of snacks, but so happy.

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For more where this came from, you can see my river-floating photo set on Flickr. You can also read the piece that I wrote for the Edmonton City As Museum Project (ECAMP) website, about my complex relationship with the North Saskatchewan River.

Until next time.