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Robin Esrock

The 12 Weirdest Experiences You Can Have in Canada

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Robin Esrock

When the going gets weird, the weird head north. Where else can you pay good money to freeze yourself (almost) to death, order a cocktail with a severed human toe, or spend a night in a haunted prison cell? On my two-year quest to discover the best experiences in Canada, these were the quirkiest.

1. The Sour Toe Cocktail

Photo: Robin Esrock

Dawson City’s Downtown Hotel bar in Yukon, Canada serves up a cocktail with a severed human toe. Since adding the drink to the menu in the 1970s, more than 60,000 people have joined the Sour Toe Cocktail Club. Preserved in a jar of salt, the donated appendage is dropped into a glass of local bourbon, and is, admittedly, a little jammy on the high notes. Drink it fast, drink it slow, but either way, your lips must touch the gnarly looking toe. Try not to swallow it (as some patrons are wont to do), or face a $2500 fine.     

2. The Cryotherapy Cold Sauna

Photo: Robin Esrock

Flash freezing yourself almost to death comes with a range of medical benefits: it’s good for muscle pain, arthritis, hormonal imbalances, and the appreciation of survival. Sparkling Hill is a glitzy spa resort in British Columbia’s interior that offers North America’s only cold sauna. Wearing nothing but bathing suits, gloves, and booties, you’ll spend three minutes in a tiny, monitored room at a balmy -166ºF. Seven minutes at this temperature could kill you, but the high-tech spa system should give you nothing to sweat about.  

3. The Narcisse Snake Dens

Photo: Ruslan Margolin

Venomous Australian snakes will attack if you even look in their direction, but Canadian snakes are pleasantly polite. Which is good news for those visiting Manitoba’s Narcisse dens, the largest concentration of snakes anywhere in the world. Each spring, tens of thousands of red garter snakes emerge from their dens in a mating ritual frenzy. You can pick them up, say hello, make a live Medusa wig. Just be gentle, watch where you step, and remember to smile, eh?   

4. The Haunted Prison Hotel

Photo: Robin Esrock

For over a century, Ottawa’s Carleton County Gaol incarcerated the city’s most notorious villains. Known for its filth and brutality, the prison was finally shut down in 1972 due to inhumane conditions. The following year it reopened as a youth hostel, and has been locking up budget travelers ever since.  Take the nightly ghost tour on Death Row before heading to your dorm cell. Those screams and groans in the middle of the night are probably just your imagination. Probably.

 5. The Not Since Moses Run

Photo: Nova Scotia Tourism Agency

Nova Scotia’s Bay of Fundy boasts the world’s highest tides, with waters reaching as high as 50 feet. Perfect for a fun run along the sea bed, competing not only against fellow runners, but also the 100 billion tonnes of the Atlantic rushing into the bay. Not since Moses have we run against the power of the ocean, although this appropriately-named annual race concludes far more agreeably, with BBQ and cold beers.

6. The Dead Sea of Canada

Photo: Robin Esrock

You’ve heard of the Dead Sea, where tourists float effortlessly in water eight times saltier than the ocean. Few outside of Saskatchewan know of North America’s equivalent, Little Manitou Lake. In this evaporating lake, with water three times saltier than the ocean, you'll be buoyant enough to read a newspaper during a dip. Bonus points for the scenery, hot springs, and free therapeutic mud, yet to be marketed as overpriced cosmetic gold.

7. The Heli Yoga Class

Photo: Robin Esrock

Tired of yoga sessions in sweaty rooms, staring at the crack of the hairy guy in front of you? With the aid of a scenic helicopter flight, a certified yoga teacher and naturist leads yoga classes high up on the peaks of the Rockies. You could hike there, but then who would have the energy for a tree pose? It can, however, be difficult to focus on your breath when the scenery around you takes it away. Who wouldn’t nama-wanna-stay up here?  

8. The Magdelan Island Cave Bash

Photo: Auberge la Salicorne

Technically, this wet activity on Quebec’s gorgeous Magdelan Islands is called Cave Swimming. Don a thick wet suit, jump into the crashing waves of the freezing Atlantic, and allow them to smash you against the red cliffs that surround the archipelago. Remarkably, the waves buttress your impact, washing you in and out of crevices and sea caves. It looks, and feels, like you shouldn’t survive such an onslaught, and yet this commercially operated adventure is mostly harmless. 

9. The Salmon Snorkel

Photo: Robin Esrock

Annual migrating salmon are among the natural wonders of the Pacific West Coast. To fully appreciate the scale, get underwater in Vancouver Island’s Campbell River. Floating downcurrent, you’ll see hundreds of thousands of salmon swimming upriver to breed and die (circle of life, and all that). Surrounded by glimmering walls of pink, coho, chum, sock-eye, and huge king salmon, you will never look at sashimi the same way again.

10. The Crooked Bush

Photo: Robin Esrock

Drive deep into Saskatchewan’s prairies, and you’ll stumble across a forest right out of Tim Burton’s imagination. Wild aspen trees typically grow straight, but a mysterious genetic mutation has resulted in “Crooked Bush”—a twisted, gnarled, and supposedly haunted grove. Spider-leg-like branches extend over a wooden boardwalk, which draws curiosity-seekers from around the country. Some locals believe aliens are behind this unnatural forest, but then again, aren’t aliens behind everything?

11. The Hermetic Code

Photo: Robin Esrock

This is the Pool of the Black Star in Winnipeg’s Legislature Building. A cool name, with a weirder story. Every person involved in the construction of this imposing government building was a Freemason, directed by a master Freemason who integrated hidden symbols, esotoric secrets, and ancient mysticism into the design. A local academic spent ten years decoding this Hermetic Code. His guided summer tours unravel a real-life Da Vinci Code that will shake your architectural foundations. Stand directly on the Black Star, speak up, and feel the power of Hermes.

12. The Diefenbunker

Photo: Robin Esrock

Global thermonuclear war. The world turns to ash, and is populated by radioactive zombies. Deep beneath the Ontario countryside, 500 chainsmoking bureaucrats work hard to restore Canadian glory. This was the vision behind the Diefenbunker, a top-secret nuclear missile shelter built in the 1960s with a goal of safely relocating members of the Canadian government. With its own canteen, hospital, CBC studio, offices, sleeping quarters, and War Games-like control rooms, no prime minister ever visited it save for Trudeau, who promptly slashed its operating budget. Decommissioned in the 1990s and re-opened as a Cold War Museum, today you can rent out the bunker for parties, weddings, and the inevitable zombie apocalypse. 

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20 Things You Might Not Have Known About Firefly
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© 2002 Twentieth Century Fox

As any diehard fan will be quick to tell you, Firefly's run was far, far too short. Despite its truncated run, the show still offers a wealth of fun facts and hidden Easter eggs. On the 15th anniversary of the series' premiere, we're looking back at the sci-fi series that kickstarted a Browncoat revolution.

1. A CIVIL WAR NOVEL INSPIRED THE FIREFLY UNIVERSE.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Killer Angels from author Michael Shaara was Joss Whedon’s inspiration for creating Firefly. It follows Union and Confederate soldiers during four days at the Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War. Whedon modeled the series and world on the Reconstruction Era, but set in the future.

2. ORIGINALLY, THE SERENITY CREW INCLUDED JUST FIVE MEMBERS.

When Whedon first developed Firefly, he wanted Serenity to only have five crew members. However, throughout development and casting, Whedon increased the cast from five to nine.

3. REBECCA GAYHEART WAS ORIGINALLY CAST TO PLAY INARA.

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Before Morena Baccarin was cast as Inara Serra, Rebecca Gayheart landed the role—but she was fired after one day of shooting because she lacked chemistry with the rest of the cast. Baccarin was cast two days later and started shooting that day.

4. NEIL PATRICK HARRIS WAS ALMOST DR. SIMON TAM.

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Before it went to Sean Maher, Neil Patrick Harris auditioned for the role of Dr. Simon Tam.

5. JOSS WHEDON WROTE THE THEME SONG.

Whedon wrote the lyrics and music for Firefly’s opening theme song, “The Ballad of Serenity.”

6. STAR WARS SPACECRAFT APPEAR IN FIREFLY.

Star Wars was a big influence on Whedon. Captain Malcolm Reynolds somewhat resembles Han Solo, while Whedon used the Millennium Falcon as inspiration to create Serenity. In fact, you can spot a few spacecraft from George Lucas's magnum opus on the show.

When Inara’s shuttle docks with Serenity in the pilot episode, an Imperial Shuttle can be found flying in the background. In the episode “Shindig,” you can see a Starlight Intruder as the crew lands on the planet Persephone.

7. HAN SOLO FROZEN IN CARBONITE POPS UP THROUGHOUT FIREFLY.

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Nathan Fillion is a big Han Solo fan, so the Firefly prop department made a 12-inch replica of Han Solo encased in Carbonite for the Canadian-born actor. You can see the prop in the background in a number of scenes.

8. ALIEN'S WEYLAND-YUTANI CORPORATION MADE AN APPEARANCE.

In Firefly’s pilot episode, the opening scene features the legendary Battle of Serenity Valley between the Browncoats and The Union of Allied Planets. Captain Malcolm Reynolds takes control of a cannon with a Weyland-Yutani logo inside of its display. Weyland-Yutani is the large conglomerate corporation in the Alien film franchise. (Whedon wrote Alien: Resurrection in 1997.)

9. ZAC EFRON'S ACTING DEBUT WAS ON FIREFLY.

A 13-year-old Zac Efron made his acting debut in the episode “Safe” in 2002. He played Young Simon in a flashback.

10. CAPTAIN MALCOLM REYNOLDS'S HORSE IS A WESTERN TROPE.

At its core, Firefly is a sci-fi western—and Malcolm Reynolds rides the same horse on every planet (it's named Fred).

11. FOX AIRED FIREFLY'S EPISODES OUT OF ORDER.

Fox didn’t feel Firefly’s two-hour pilot episode was strong enough to air as its first episode. Instead, “The Train Job” was broadcast first because it featured more action and excitement. The network continued to cherry-pick episodes based on broad appeal rather than story consistency, and eventually aired the pilot as the show’s final episode.

12. THE ALLIANCE'S ORIGINS ARE AMERICAN AND CHINESE.

The full name of The Alliance is The Anglo-Sino Alliance. Whedon envisioned The Alliance as a merger of American and Chinese government and corporate superpowers. The Union of Allied Planets’ flag is a blending of the American and Chinese national flags.

13. THE SERENITY LOUNGE SERVED AS AN ACTUAL LOUNGE.

Between set-ups and shots, the cast would hang out in the lounge on the Serenity set rather than trailers or green rooms.

14. INARA SERRA'S NAME IS MESOPOTAMIAN.

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Inara Serra is named after the Mesopotamian Hittite goddess, the protector of all wild animals.

15. THE CHARACTERS SWORE (JUST NOT IN ENGLISH).

The Firefly universe is a mixture of American and Chinese culture, which made it easy for writers to get around censors by having characters swear in Chinese.

16. THE UNIFORMS ARE RECYCLED FROM STARSHIP TROOPERS.

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

The uniforms for Alliance officers and soldiers were the costumes from the 1997 science fiction film Starship Troopers. The same costumes were repurposed again for the Starship Troopers sequel.

17. "SUMMER!" MEANS SOMEONE MESSED UP.

Every time a cast member flubbed one of his or her lines, they would yell Summer Glau’s name. This was a running gag among the cast after Glau forgot her lines in the episode “Objects In Space.”

18. THE SERENITY SPACESHIP WAS BUILT TO SCALE.

The interior of Serenity was built entirely to scale; rooms and sections were completely contiguous. The ship’s interior was split into two stages, one for the upper deck and one for the lower. Whedon showed off the Firefly set in one long take to open the Serenity movie.

19. "THE MESSAGE" SHOULD HAVE BEEN THE SHOW'S FAREWELL.

Although “The Message” was the twelfth episode, it was the last episode filmed during Firefly’s short run. Composer Greg Edmonson wrote a piece of music for a funeral scene in the episode, which served as a final farewell to the show. Sadly, it was one of three episodes (the other two were “Trash” and “Heart of Gold”) that didn’t air during Firefly’s original broadcast run on Fox.

20. FIREFLY AND SERENITY WERE SENT TO THE INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION.

American Astronaut Steven Ray Swanson is a big fan of Firefly, so when he was sent to the International Space Station for his first mission (STS-117) in 2007, he brought DVD copies of Firefly and its feature film Serenity aboard with him. The DVDs are now a permanent part of the space station’s library.

This post originally appeared in 2014.

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10 Hush-Hush Facts About L.A. Confidential
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Warner Bros.

On this day 20 years ago, a rising star director, a writer who thought he’d never get the gig, and a remarkable cast got together to make a film about the corrupt underbelly of 1950s Los Angeles, and the men and women who littered its landscape. This was L.A. Confidential, a film so complex that its creator (legendary crime writer James Ellroy) thought it was “unadaptable.” In the end, it was one of the most acclaimed movies of the 1990s, a film noir classic that made its leading actors into even bigger stars, and which remains an instantly watchable masterpiece to this day. Here are 10 facts about how it got made.

1. THE SCRIPTING PROCESS WAS TOUGH.

Writer-director Curtis Hanson had been a longtime James Ellroy fan when he finally read L.A. Confidential, and the characters in that particular Ellroy novel really spoke to him, so he began working on a script. Meanwhile, Brian Helgeland—originally contracted to write an unproduced Viking film for Warner Bros.—was also a huge Ellroy fan, and lobbied hard for the studio to give him the scripting job. When he learned that Hanson already had it, the two met, and bonded over their mutual admiration of Ellroy’s prose. Their passion for the material was clear, but it took two years to get the script done, with a number of obstacles.

"He would turn down other jobs; I would be doing drafts for free,” Helgeland said. “Whenever there was a day when I didn't want to get up anymore, Curtis tipped the bed and rolled me out on the floor."

2. IT WAS ORIGINALLY INTENDED AS A MINISERIES.

When executive producer David Wolper first read Ellroy’s novel, he saw the dense, complex story as the perfect fodder for a television miniseries, and was promptly turned down by all the major networks at the time.

3. JAMES ELLROY DIDN’T THINK THE BOOK COULD BE ADAPTED.

Though Wolper was intrigued by the idea of telling the story onscreen, Ellroy and his agent laughed at the thought. The author felt his massive book would never fit on any screen.

“It was big, it was bad, it was bereft of sympathetic characters,” Ellroy said. “It was unconstrainable, uncontainable, and unadaptable.”

4. CURTIS HANSON SOLD THE FILM WITH CLASSIC LOS ANGELES IMAGES.

To get the film made, Hanson had to convince New Regency Pictures head Arnon Milchan that it was worth producing. To do this, he essentially put together a collage of classic Los Angeles imagery, from memorable locations to movie stars, including the famous image of Robert Mitchum leaving jail after his arrest for using marijuana.

"Now you've seen the image of L.A. that was sold to get everybody to come here. Let's peel back the image and see where our characters live,” Hanson said.

Milchan was sold.

5. KEVIN SPACEY WAS ON HANSON’S WISH LIST FOR YEARS.

Though the other stars of the film were largely discoveries of the moment, Kevin Spacey was apparently someone Hanson wanted to work with for years. Spacey described Hanson as a director “who’d been trying for years and years and years to get me cast in films he made, and the studio always rejected me.” After Spacey won an Oscar for The Usual Suspects, Hanson called the actor and said “I think I’ve got the role, and I think they’re not gonna say no this time.”

6. SPACEY’S CHARACTER IS BASED ON DEAN MARTIN.

Warner Bros.

Though he cast relative unknowns in Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce, Hanson wanted an American movie star for the role of Jack Vincennes, and decided on Kevin Spacey. In an effort to convince Spacey to take the role, Hanson invited him to dine at L.A.’s famous Formosa Cafe (where scenes in the film are actually set). While at the cafe, Spacey asked a vital question:

“If it was really 1952, and you were really making this movie, who would you cast as Jack Vincennes? And [Hanson] said ‘Dean Martin.’”

At that point, Spacey looked up at the gallery of movie star photos which line the cafe, and realized Martin’s photo was right above him.

“To this day, I don’t know whether he sat us in that booth on purpose, but there was Dino looking down at me,” Spacey said.

After his meeting with Hanson, Spacey watched Martin’s performances in Some Came Running (1958) and Rio Bravo (1959), and realized that both films featured characters who mask vulnerability with a layer of cool. That was the genesis of Jack Vincennes.

7. HANSON CHOSE MUCH OF THE MUSIC BEFORE FILMING.

To help set the tone for his period drama, Hanson began selecting music of the early 1950s even before filming began, so he could play it on set as the actors went to work. Among his most interesting choices: When Jack Vincennes sits in a bar, staring at the money he’s just been bribed with, Dean Martin’s “Powder Your Face With Sunshine (Smile! Smile! Smile!)” plays, a reference to both the character’s melancholy, and to Spacey and Hanson’s decision to base the character on Martin.

8. THE CINEMATOGRAPHY WAS INSPIRED BY ROBERT FRANK PHOTOGRAPHS.

To emphasize realism and period accuracy, cinematographer Dante Spinotti thought less about the moving image, and more about still photographs. In particular, he used photographer Robert Frank’s 1958 collection "The Americans" as a tool, and relied less on artificial light and more on environmental light sources like desk lamps.

"I tried to compose shots as if I were using a still camera,” Spinotti said. “I was constantly asking myself, 'Where would I be if I were holding a Leica?' This is one reason I suggested shooting in the Super 35 widescreen format; I wanted to use spherical lenses, which for me have a look and feel similar to still-photo work.”

9. THE FINAL STORY TWIST IS NOT IN THE BOOK.

Warner Bros.

[SPOILER ALERT] In the film, Jack Vincennes, Ed Exley, and Bud White are all chasing a mysterious crime lord known as “Rollo Tomasi,” who turns out to be their own LAPD colleague, Dudley Smith (James Cromwell). Though Vincennes, Exley, and White are all native to Ellroy’s novel, the Tomasi name is entirely an invention of the film.

10. ELLROY APPROVED OF THE MOVIE.

To adapt L.A. Confidential for the screen, Hanson and Helgeland condensed Ellroy’s original novel, boiling the story down to a three-person narrative and ditching other subplots so they could get to the heart of the three cops at the center of the movie. Ellroy, in the end, was pleased with their choices.

“They preserved the basic integrity of the book and its main theme, which is that everything in Los Angeles during this era of boosterism and yahooism was two-sided and two-faced and put out for cosmetic purposes,” Ellroy said. “The script is very much about the [characters'] evolution as men and their lives of duress. Brian and Curtis took a work of fiction that had eight plotlines, reduced those to three, and retained the dramatic force of three men working out their destiny. I've long held that hard-boiled crime fiction is the history of bad white men doing bad things in the name of authority. They stated that case plain.”

Additional Sources:
Inside the Actors Studio: Kevin Spacey (2000)

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