So Just How Smart Are They?

This article was first published 6 years ago in my regular column in the Vernon Edition of The Daily Courier. Sadly, Charlie is no longer with us, having died at the grand age of 14. He did, however, in his final years, manage to pass on some of his “wisdom” to “Yo”, our present canine family member.

Charlie figured out how to pull our emotional strings!

We’ve got it all wrong! We have not domesticated our canine companions – they have domesticated us! Think about it. Who works the extra hours to earn the hard cash that buys the kibbles we put in their bowls? Who rushes home so that we can take Fido for a walk? Who covers their vet bills? So just how smart are they?

Dogs have been a part of my family life since childhood. I’ve learnt that some of them are smart, whilst others, as in human populations, may be one brick short of a full load. Their smartness may not have human qualities, but in their own, down to the necessities of life way, they can be very smart. It has been said that a dog has the intellectual abilities of a 3 year old child and the emotional development of a teenager – I find that accurate. I don’t know whether our Portuguese Water Dog, “Charlie”, actually thinks but his actions lead my wife and I to believe he is smart when it comes to getting what he wants.

For instance, we are constantly organising our lives around Charlie’s schedule, putting his well being and happiness first. The interesting thing is that he is so responsive to that sort of attention. With a little careful study, we have discovered his body language speaks volumes about his feelings. We get silent feed back – most of it is positive, which gives us a warm fuzzy feeling that encourages us to indulge him further.

For instance, I take simple pleasure in watching Charlie do the things he loves – such as eating sardines, his favourite food. He will first eat the less interesting stuff, leaving the smelly fish until last. After he has savoured the last morsel he will prance joyfully around the house, running rings around us, tail gyrating wildly, licking his lips and giving ecstatic sneezes. Of course, we encourage him; “Sardines Charlie! Wasn’t that good!” He will run his muzzle along any soft furniture to wipe off the remnants. Spreading the odour of tinned sardines around the house is, perhaps, his way of letting us know just how yummy they were. Or maybe, he figures, if the odour lingers long enough, I might remember to give him sardines again tomorrow.

He loves walking with me as much as I with him. It brings us both health and vitality, and we both make lots of new friends. Charlie is smart because he uses positive feed back to get more of what he wants. Some humans have yet to learn that trick.

Charlie is not perfect and his main vice is counter “surfing”. Several times I have removed a fresh loaf from the bread maker and left it to cool on the counter. The door bell or phone rings and when I return to the kitchen a minute later I find Charlie licking the last remaining crumbs from the metal paddle that was seconds earlier inside the warm bread. He definitely knows what coming next but always gives me that “Ok, but it was worth it” look as he dashes for the door.

We have also learned never to leave a plate unattended – even for a few seconds, for Charlie will sneak over and start removing the contents. And he is smart about it too; he will carefully remove the tastiest morsels leaving the cutlery undisturbed on the plate. If we’re away long enough, the plate will be dishwasher clean and I’m left scratching my head, wondering whether we have already eaten or have yet to serve up. He really has this figured out because we rarely catch him in the act even if there is still food left on the plate. When he hears us coming he slinks off and parks himself on his favourite piece of furniture, gazing into the doggy distance and pretending nothing has happened. Maybe, in that canine brain, he realises that Mommy and Daddy’s dinners are sacred and he better not get caught taking them!

Charlie is special, because unlike previous dogs I have known, he has taught me new respect for the animal kingdom. We are, after all, animals ourselves, although arrogance tends to put us above other species. We experience the same basic emotions as our canine companions and these cross the species gap in both directions. In our fast moving, technological world, this has helped us establish a healing connection with nature. No wonder pets are good for our mental and physical health.

Our relationship with our canine companions is evolving. In our modern world few dogs truly work for a living in the traditional sense. They are, instead, becoming our valued companions and healers. They do not have to worry where their next meal is coming from or who will look after them when they grow old. They just have to express spontaneous joy and unconditional love in exchange for all their needs. Now that’s smart!

For more of my canine images http://davidskelhon.zenfolio.com/p299064201

Why do all the work when there’s a gullible human willing to do for you!

Man Over Board!

Putting on a Personal Flotation Device should be as automatic as fastening a seat belt in a car. Here’s why!

Wearing a Personal Floatation Device (PFD) or a life jacket is important even on a good day.

Summer is here and many of us love messing about in boats. Do you wear a personal floatation device (PFD) when you are on the water, even when it’s flat calm, or you are just making a short trip from the dock? Maybe you are strong swimmer and don’t see the need? If you are one of the many people who don’t then this true story might make you pause and think, because accidents are, by their very nature, unforeseen and unpredictable.

After several years of living on a sailboat, I must admit I had become quite blasé about water safety. Then one day, about 20 years ago, three of us could have died, and only a bizarre second “accident” prevented a tragedy. Here is the story and some of the lessons learnt.

It was a beautiful, late spring day and I was sailing along the UK’s south-west coast. A light breeze was blowing as I dropped anchor off the sleepy Cornish village of Cawsands. I was about 500 meters from the beach which, at this time of year, was only lightly populated with tourists. The only other boat in the area was a small sailboat, about 15 feet in length and crewed by a man and a child.

I was preoccupied with setting the anchor when I heard a distant splash. It was obviously a little more significant than a fish jumping from the water and it distracted me enough to look up. I was alarmed to see that the little sailboat, about 200 metres distant, now only had one occupant, a small child, who sat perfectly still at the rear of the boat, which was still moving under sail.

When I saw an arm rise from the water, some distance behind the boat, then disappear again below the waves the shocking reality of the situation I was becoming involved in started to sink in. Figuring that it would take too long to pull up the anchor and get underway, I threw my very small, inflatable tender over the side of my boat, grabbed a paddle and headed towards a struggling figure in the water.

As I headed towards him, I noticed that the sailboat, its sails full in the light breeze, was starting to turn out to sea. As it passed nearby I realised that its traumatised occupant was probably only 4 or 5 years old. “Do you know how to steer?” I shouted. No response came – he was frozen with fear and I was concerned that a gust of wind could capsize his boat at any moment. There was no way I could paddle fast enough to catch up with him so I concentrated a reaching the swimmer, who unlike the child, was not wearing a PFD and was clearly in considerable difficulty. At least, I thought, somebody ashore must have seen what happened and initiated a rescue.

After an exhausting few minutes of paddling I pulled alongside the man in the water. He was a big man, very overweight, exhausted and frightened. I could see blood in the water from a gash in his side. His knuckles whitened as his stiff hands gripped the line that ran alongside my little inflatable. I realised that pulling him aboard was going to be impossible, as he was already too weak to assist. A combination of shock and hypothermia in the cold Atlantic waters were taking hold. “OK, I want you to hold on and I’m going to paddle us ashore,”I said realising at the same time I was being very optimistic as wind and tide where conspiring to push us further out to sea. He was too exhausted to answer but made a feeble attempt to pull himself out of the water. I instinctively reached out to help him and tried in vain to heave him aboard, but I became alarmed as the tender started to buckle under the load, leading to a situation that could quite easily end up with both of us in the water.

At this point, a bizarre piece of luck occurred which probably saved lives. In the struggle with the swimmer I had lost track of the sailboat, which thanks to mother nature and some random sail settings, had come around in a wide circle and was now moving at a brisk pace and on collision course with us. The first I knew about it was when my tender was stuck with a dull thud from behind, nearly catapulting me into the water. Somehow in the confusion I managed to grab hold of the sailboat’s rigging and hold on for dear life. It turned out to be our salvation, as I managed to clamber on board, find some rope and put it around the man in the water. It was still impossible to pull him aboard so I set sail for the beach, dragging him and my inflatable alongside us.

As we approached the shore, the young boy sat opposite me, shaking and speechless, tears rolling down his cheeks. Looking towards the village the realisation dawned on me that the frantic running about and launching of boats I had expected to see just wasn’t happening. Life was going on totally oblivious to the drama on the water.

As I later paddled back to my boat, I patted myself on the back for a job well done with one hand, and hit myself over the head with the other for not wearing a PFD myself. Putting on a PFD should be as automatic as fastening a seat belt in a car. Remember, being a great swimmer isn’t any help if you are injured or knocked unconscious during a fall overboard – only a PFD is likely to save you!

There were other lessons to be learnt too.

  • Two or more adults should be available when taking young children onto the water.
  • Have flares or other signalling devices readily at hand and know how to use them. Looking back, if I had taken 30 seconds to fire off a flare or sound the horn before jumping into the tender, I would have alerted people ashore and made a successful outcome more certain.
  •  Understand that if some one falls overboard you may not be able to get them back on board easily. This is where a floating line, lifebuoys, and boarding ladders become important together with a predetermined plan that everyone on board understands.
  •  Briefing your crew about the location and operation of safety devices, as well as man overboard procedures, is an essential responsibility of the skipper. Putting it off because it “might alarm the crew” or set a sombre tone is misguided. Ultimately, remember, it may be the skipper who needs rescuing!

Resource Extraction In Western Canada – Should We Should Say No To Enbridge?

Placer mining, in this case for Yukon gold, destroys river valleys and in this cold northern climate, recovery is slow.

British Columbia has been my home for 15 years and I have been privileged to see more of it than most Canadians ever will. I have flown, driven and sailed Western Canada but still have barely scratched the surface.

Before I left the United Kingdom in 1996, I got to know parts of my homeland particularly well, having co-authored four regional guidebooks. It just isn’t possible to have this intimate level of contact with the Canadian landscape – it’s just too vast. I wasn’t born and raised here and I found of the land intimidating, and at times, downright scary. I was more used to the gentleness of the British countryside.

What has surprised me is that despite its vastness and sparse population, little of what I have seen of the Canadian landscape remains truly untouched wilderness. Certainly from the aerial perspective, resource extraction and exploration dominates huge areas, even if it isn’t currently active. I recently spent summers working in the Yukon flying surveys and fire patrol as well as transporting miners in and out of Klondike gold mines. The land south of the Klondike is riddled with evidence of active mining, predominantly for precious metals. Many river bottoms have been turned over in the frantic search for gold, and machinery abandoned one hundred years ago can often be found rotting and rusting in the bush. Even further north, seismic lines criss-cross vast areas, indicating an interest in the ground below. In the short Arctic growing season, these scars are slow to heal. That said, keep in mind that my work generally has taken me to areas that have seen human activity so my perspective is somewhat biased.

British Columbia is mined as well as extensively logged. Much of this happens in areas remote from habitation and, again, is best seen from the air when trying to appreciate the scale of activity. Statistics are useful and they tell part of the story but there’s nothing like getting close up and forming your own opinion, and I have acquired an appreciation of the scale of operations from snooping around. My photographs are for those unable to see for themselves and gain a sense of the scale. Of course, this is my perspective shot and edited to make a particular point. And that point is, that in 100 years, we have removed huge tracts of forest. We’re gone from handsaws and horses the highly mechanized and sophisticated harvesting techniques – in the same way that farmers on the prairies have gone from scythes and horse-drawn hay wagons to huge combine harvesters.

Clear cut areas show up well during winter. These are east of Kelowna in BC’s Southern Interior.

In the last three years I have visited some 20 lumber mills and at least a dozen mines, including Yukon gold mines and BC copper mines. I’ve also seen the oil sands from the air and spent many winter nights in the tar sands capital, Fort McMurray. Please take a look at the piles trees ready for processing of lumber mills – some of them boggle the mind.

Just one small part of a vast stockpile of lumber awaiting processing at a mill in Williams Lake, BC.

You might not be able to fly a small plane over Western Canada but you can do the next best thing. Go to Google Maps and take virtual flight across Canada – or for that matter any part of the planet. It’s a great way get a sense of scale. But that only gives part of the story. The tar sands, for instance, currently occupy a small fraction of the land in Alberta (surprisingly small considering their media coverage), but they are adjacent to the Athabasca River which has the potential to spread pollutants as far as the Arctic Ocean.

The effects of logging and mining are like a dripping tap. They are generally involve slow paced environmental degradation and unless it’s in your back yard, most of us tolerate and accept that it’s what’s necessary to make the world go around.

Let’s get back to Enbridge as here the stakes are a lot higher and we may not just be dealing with dripping taps. We could in fact be dealing with gushing mains. The company will endeavor to sell us a rosy story of jobs and money flowing into government coffers. I’ve no doubt the oil industry told the same story to the residents of the Gulf of Mexico, or for that matter, the nuclear industry to the Japanese people before they built Fukushima. We will be living with the consequences of these catastrophes for a very long time – thousands of years in the case of Fukushima.

I would like to think that champions of the Enbridge pipeline are just ignorant of the potential for catastrophe. In any rate, ignorance is no excuse for gambling with peoples lives and livelihoods, especially when the gamble extends into future generations. Those involved rarely come from the land they are exploiting and as soon as the money dries up will disappear in a heartbeat. Let’s face it, jobs are temporary, and bright minds and willing hands can be better employed creating a sustainable future.

Right now, we need oil to function, but it’s days as a primary energy source are coming to an end. By necessity or perhaps choice we will make do with less and we will eventually learn to exploit exciting new energy technologies that are poised to transform our world.

This is just my opinion and I’ll be the first to admit that deciding when enough is enough is tough. Ultimately, we are dependent on those very resources to get out there and even take a look at what we are doing. Our planes, boats and cars need those resources in their construction and operation. It’s a subjective decision but I believe when your heart aches over what you see first hand, then let that be your guide.

Despite the industrialization of the landscape, we still live in one of the most beautiful and pristine corners of the planet. I hope we choose wisely and keep it that way.

See my Resource Industries in Western Canada Gallery.

We have some of the most wonderful scenery on the planet, let’s keep it that way.

Clouds and Silver Linings In A World Where Things Fix Themselves

I love quality; that’s why I have always used Nikon photographic gear. It’s the same with other aspects of my life; I once spent the five years driving a diesel Land Cruiser. A quality product, even if it was nearly half my age. I’m also an amateur radio operator, and a fairly miserly one I’ll admit. I can’t afford quality new gear so I dig around flee markets and “ham fests” for quality old.  Most of my equipment is from the era of large, chunky dials, and vacuum tubes. This type of radio is often referred to as a “boat anchor,” as once “dead,”these extraordinarily heavy devices fit the bill exactly. By now you are probably starting to get the picture.

A couple years ago I acquired a Yaesu FT 901 DM, one of the finest radios from the early 80s. It’s called a hybrid radio, because it has both transistors, and in the power amplifier, vacuum tubes. It’s a heavy beast, weighing in at nearly 45 pounds.

This one was almost cosmetically perfect but I bought it for a couple of hundred dollars knowing it needed some electronic TLC. I’m no radio engineer but I know that 90% of problems in electronics usually arise from a mechanical failure, such as a “dry” solder joint or a corroded contact in a switch or relay. Transistors and vacuum tubes have no moving parts and do not wear out in the conventional sense. So I optimistically dug around in the radio with it switched on – something requiring great care and focus as vacuum tubes in these old radios require a whopping 900 volts to operate.

Sure enough, as I prodded one of the many circuit boards, the receiver crackled into life and after 30 minutes of poking around I isolated the problem down to a little metal can containing a crystal filter – a device which helps tune-out unwanted signals. Lifting the corner of the can caused the receiver to scratch and crackle. With a soldering iron in one hand and the vacuum de-soldering tool in the other, I carefully melted and removed the solder from the wires connecting the can to the circuit board. Freed from the board, I then cut the can open to reveal an interconnected web of precisely ground quartz crystals. Further prodding revealed the culprit – a dry solder joint that was easily fixed.

After hastily reassembling, I fired it up. I now had a working receiver but unfortunately my voice couldn’t be heard on the airwaves. I prodded and pulled wires, removed circuit boards and cleaned contacts but to no avail. Frustrated and lacking some essential diagnostic equipment, I could not move forward. Eventually I took the radio to the basement store room and placed it carefully on a shelf several feet from the floor. I covered it with an old sheet and told myself it would be a winter project – one of many requiring my attention. For more than an instant I thought about selling it – no doubt there were lots of capable enthusiasts out there who were knowledgeable enough to be able to fix it. But then it was in such beautiful condition that I hated the thought of parting with it. After all, it’s a piece of history from the days when men were men and radios were huge, tactile machines and indestructible to boot – not the modern wimpy, nano sized devices driven by multifunction buttons and menus.

A few months later, I stepped into the storeroom in search of some unrelated household item, only to find this beautiful piece of history laying on its side middle of the concrete floor. I couldn’t believe it – how could that have happened? My blood pressure was rising as fast as my heart was sinking. Sparks flew in my mind. Had my dear wife accidentally knocked it off the shelf? Hardly likely and hell she would have known if she had, the impact would have been enough to shake the house down to its foundations. I lifted it gingerly, turning it over to inspect the damage. The rear of the casing was bent and the textured green paint irreparably damaged. I was, to say the least, hopping mad. Several hundred dollars had been wiped from its resale value and God knows what damage I might find inside.

Disgusted, I placed it back on the shelf pushing it several inches back from its earlier position. I shook my head – how in the hell could that have happened?

Several months past before I could bare to look at it again. Eventually I took it into the workshop and removed the bent covers to inspect the damage. The impact had popped the vacuum tubes and a mechanical relay from their sockets. I pushed them back into place. Besides the damage to the paint, the chassis was so badly twisted that one of the supporting feet now hovered a good quarter of an inch above the bench.

I plugged it in, expecting nothing. Strangely everything seemed to work on receive at least. Encouraged, I connected it to an antenna, grabbed the microphone, cleared my throat and announced my call sign. To my surprise power needles flicked to very healthy deflections. Wow! I took a deep breath and called, “CQ CQ CQ,” – the amateur radio operator’s request for contact. Instantly a reply came in the form of a male voice with a deep southern drawl, from the other side of the continent, telling me that I had “five-nine” copy and good audio!

I still haven’t figured out how a 45 pound radio ended up on the floor and I doubt that I ever will. Having crashed to the floor myself – literally and figuratively on several occasions over the last few years, I am reminded that not only had other people “written me off”, that I had also taken to writing myself off. But parts of myself had been shaken up in my falls and and like the 901 DM, despite being a little tattered around the edges, I believe I am now in better working order than before.

Change of Tack

It’s 15 years since I gained my commercial pilot’s license and I started my aviation career as a flight instructor a few years later. I had fun teaching others to fly and especially enjoyed helping amateur aircraft builders complete their projects. These projects often concluded with some challenging test flying and problem solving, which I thoroughly enjoyed. After clocking up some 1500 hours of instruction, and flying some exotic aircraft, I turned to the world of bush flying.

For me, bush flying wasn’t the positive experience I expected. The work was seasonal and I had to juggle with other jobs to make it happen. It also quickly became clear that the dangers involved are considerable. When I pulled myself out of the wreck of a Cessna 206 in June 2011, I clearly recall thinking to myself, “I guess it’s all over.” There was barely a pang of sadness; in fact, I felt an upwelling of relief. Relief that neither I or my passengers were hurt and also that I had now acquired the perfect excuse to quit.

I may do some recreational flying from time to time or some aerial photography, but as for flying people and supplies into remote mountain strips, I’m done with it. Aviation at this level is way too underpaid considering the level of risk, and the current gold rush is leading to corner-cutting with potentially lethal consequences. Also, as a colleague once remarked, “aviation is ego driven.” That remark stuck with me and as I reflected on it long and hard I realised he was spot-on. As with other ego driven occupations, aviation tends to bring out the worst in people more frequently that the best.

Financially, a career in aviation – certainly at the seasonal bush flying level – is best suited to young, unattached men. My wife has suffered immeasurably and no doubt she was as relieved as I am that a career change is in the making!

On the other hand I had enjoyed the opportunity to fly in the north and see a little of the Arctic and meet some wonderful, inspiring individuals. This is something difficult to do as a tourist and to see this remote beauty is one of the reasons I chose to come to Canada in the first place.

So what does a newly unemployed bush pilot turn his hand to?

Well, I love boats and sailing. Twenty years ago I set out on a three-month voyage around Britain in a 26 foot sailboat that I had built myself. It was a wonderful, fulfilling experience and as I sailed home for Plymouth in the fall of 1991 it felt as if the journey would continue for the rest of my life.

That journey, however, has taken a rather long pause as other neglected aspects of my life demanded my attention. Although its nature has changed there is still a longing to get back to the ocean and a simpler life and this has been somewhat shared by my wife. After all, I did propose to her on a sailboat so I figure she knew what she was getting in to!

Back in the late eighties and nineties I made my living building and refitting boats. It paid the bills and I also made a name for myself as a freelance sailing writer and photographer. I’m naturally reluctant to go backwards but I considered that if I could find a niche somewhere I would make a go of it. That opportunity came quickly and I’m now on Vancouver Island building and restoring wooden boats.

The world of wooden boats moves at a slower, more humane pace than aviation. Boats, and wooden boats in particular, are driven by aesthetics rather than ego or money.

I’m looking forward to getting back onto an even keel. I’ll keep you posted.

To see my unique aerial photography go to davidskelhon.photoshelter.com