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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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ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images
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10 Fascinating Practices on UNESCO’s Cultural Heritage List
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ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images

You've probably heard of UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) World Heritage Sites—places like Machu Picchu, Auschwitz, and the Tower of London that UNESCO has deemed architecturally or historically important. But UNESCO doesn’t just choose important places to protect—it also maintains an Intangible Cultural Heritage List, which includes traditions and ways of life passed down from generation to generation and now in danger of being lost.

The list is rooted in a 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, which created the list to raise visibility for the practices and encourage dialogue around cultural diversity. The list protects five types of cultural heritage: oral expression and traditions (including language); performing arts; social practices, rituals, and festivities; knowledge and practices about nature and the universe; and traditional craftsmanship.

In some ways, cultural heritage is even more fragile than buildings and archaeological sites because it lies in people’s memories, and so can be easily lost or changed with no real record to preserve it. And the results of a loss of cultural heritage can be dire: Culture helps define a minority group, and the loss of that culture can mean a disconnection from the past.

UNESCO now maintains two lists: the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity and the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding (the latter only includes items identified as needing immediate protection).

To be added to a list, an item must be nominated by one of the countries that is a party to the convention. A committee then meets annually to determine which practices should be added to the lists, based on whether they meet the convention's definitions of cultural heritage, whether inscribing the practice will encourage dialogue and awareness, and whether there's been wide involvement by the culture concerned, among other criteria.

1. CULTURE OF JEJU HAENYEO // KOREA

Female divers (some as old as 80) from Jeju Island in the Republic of Korea have been collecting shellfish for hundreds of years. The divers, known as Haenyeo, submerge as much as 30 feet without scuba gear to harvest sea urchins and abalone, working up to seven hours a day. They hold their breath for a minute during each dive, and each makes a distinctive whistling noise when surfacing. Prayers are said to the goddess of the sea before the dives begin. The culture has played an important part in elevating women’s status on the island—women are the primary breadwinners in these families, and the haenyeo have become a symbol of the place.

2. HIKAYE // PALESTINE

Palestinian women over the age of 70 are part of this narrative tradition. During the winter, at gatherings of women and children (it's considered inappropriate for men to attend), the older women in the community tell fictional stories that critique society from the female point of view and, UNESCO notes, often reveal a conflict between "duty and desire." The storytelling involves rhythm, inflection, and other vocal arts, but is now on the decline due to the availability of mass media.

3. CAMEL COAXING // MONGOLIA

Mongol camel herders perform a special ritual when they want a mother camel to accept a newborn calf or adopt an orphan. The mother and calf are tied together and the camel coaxer sings a special song that includes gestures and chants designed to encourage the mother to accept the baby. A horse-head fiddle or flute is also played. The ritual reinforces social ties in the nomadic society, and is passed down from parent to child. But as motorcycles are replacing camels as transportation, the practice is in danger.

4. SUMMER SOLSTICE FIRES // PYRENEES MOUNTAINS

In the Pyrenees Mountains of Andorra, Spain, and France, residents from local villages carry flaming torches down the hills to light large beacons on the night of the summer solstice. Carrying the torches is a rite of passage from childhood to adulthood, and setting the first fire is a special role given to priests, politicians, or the newly married. Unmarried girls greet the torch carriers with pastries and wine, and ashes are collected the next morning to put in gardens.

5. KNUCKLE-BONE SHOOTING // MONGOLIA

In Mongolia, residents play a game in which small teams of six to eight people flick pieces of marble across a table to push sheep knuckle bones into a target. The shooters wear personalized costumes denoting their rank in the game, and use individually created shooting tools. They also sing traditional tunes throughout the game.

6. VÍ AND GIẶM FOLK SONGS // VIETNAM

In northern Vietnam, folk songs in the Nghệ Tĩnh dialect are sung while people harvest rice, row boats, make conical hats, or put children to sleep. The songs focus on the values important in that culture, including respect for parents, honesty, and goodness. The songs also provide a way for unmarried young men and women to share their feelings with each other.

7. YURT-MAKING // KAZAKHSTAN AND KYRGYZSTAN

Nomads in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan make round yurts for use as temporary, portable homes, as well as for ceremonies like weddings and funerals. A round wooden frame forms the basis for the structure, and is then covered in felt and braided ropes. Men create the wooden frame, while women create the outside covering and inside decorations, working in groups to create the intricate patterns and reinforce social values.

8. WEAVING OF THE Q’ESWACHAKA BRIDGE // PERU

Quechua-speaking peasant communities in Peru come together each year to replace the suspension bridge over the Apurimac River in the Andes Mountains. The bridge is made of an unusual material—straw that's twisted and tied into ropes. The ropes are attached on each side of the river, and the bridge builders work until they meet in the middle. When the bridge is complete, a festival is held.

9. BARKCLOTH MAKING // UGANDA

Buganda craftsmen from southern Uganda harvest bark from the Mutuba tree and beat the bark with wooden mallets until it is soft, cloth-like, and a terracotta color. The barkcloth is worn as togas by men and women (who add a sash to their outfit) during ceremonial events. The availability of cotton has resulted in a reduction in the production of this specialized cloth.

10. SHRIMP FISHING ON HORSEBACK // BELGIUM

In Oostduinkerke, Belgium, 12 families harvest shrimp using horses. The Brabant horses walk breast-deep in the water parallel to the shore, pulling funnel-shaped nets. They also pull a chain along the bottom, which causes vibrations that make the shrimp jump into the nets. The caught shrimp are then carried in baskets attached to the horses’ sides. Each family specializes in a particular part of the practice, such as caring for the horses or weaving nets. The community celebrates this heritage with a yearly Shrimp Festival.

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© 2004 Twentieth Century Fox
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10 Sweet Facts About Napoleon Dynamite
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© 2004 Twentieth Century Fox

ChapStick, llamas, and tater tots are just a few things that appear in Napoleon Dynamite, a cult film shot for a mere $400,000 that went on to gross $44.5 million. In 2002, Brigham Young University film student Jared Hess filmed a black-and-white short, Peluca, with his classmate Jon Heder. The film got accepted into the Slamdance Film Festival, which gave Hess the courage to adapt it into a feature. Hess used his real-life upbringing in Preston, Idaho—he had six brothers and his mom owned llamas—to form the basis of the movie, about a nerdy teenager named Napoleon (Heder) who encourages his friend Pedro (Efren Ramirez) to run for class president.

In 2004, the indie film screened at Sundance, and was quickly purchased by Fox Searchlight and Paramount, then released less than six months later. Today, the film remains so popular that last year Pedro and Napoleon reunited for a cheesy tots Burger King commercial. Here are 10 sweet facts about the ever-quotable comedy.

1. DEB IS BASED ON JERUSHA HESS.

Jared Hess’ wife Jerusha co-wrote the film and based Deb on her own life. “Her mom made her a dress when she was going to a middle school dance and she said, ‘I hadn’t really developed yet, so my mom overcompensated and made some very large, fluffy shoulders,’” Jared told Rolling Stone. “Some guy dancing with her patted the sleeves and actually said, ‘I like your sleeves … they’re real big.’” 

Tina Majorino, who played the fictional Deb, hadn’t done a comedy before, because people thought of her as a dramatic actress. “The fact that Jared would even let me come in and read really appealed to me,” she told Rolling Stone. “Even if I didn’t get the role, I just wanted to see what it was like to audition for a comedy, as I’d never done it before.”

2. NAPOLEON'S FAMOUS DANCE SCENE MANIFESTED FROM THE SHORT FILM.

At the end of shooting Peluca, Hess had a minute of film stock left and knew Heder liked to dance. Heder had on moon boots—something Hess used to wear—so they traveled to the end of a dirt road. They turned on the car radio and Jamiroquai’s “Canned Heat” was playing. “I just told him to start dancing and realized: This is how we’ve got to end the film,” Hess told Rolling Stone. “You don’t anticipate those kinds of things. They’re just part of the creative process.” 

Heder told The Huffington Post he found inspiration in Michael Jackson and dancing in front of a mirror, for the end-of-the-movie skit. But when it came time to film the dance for the feature, Heder felt “pressure” to deliver. “I was like, ‘Oh, crap!’ This isn’t just a silly little scene,” he told PDX Monthly. “This is the moment where everything comes, and he’s making the sacrifice for his friend. That’s the whole theme of the movie. Everything leads up to this. Napoleon’s been this loser. This has to be the moment where he lands a victory.” Instead of hiring a choreographer, the filmmakers told him to “just figure it out.” They filmed the scene three times with three different songs, including Jamiroquai’s “Little L” and “Canned Heat.”

3. FANS STILL FLOCK TO PRESTON, IDAHO TO TOUR THE MOVIE’S LOCATIONS.

In a 2016 interview with The Salt Lake Tribune, The Preston Citizen’s circulation manager, Rhonda Gregerson, said “every summer at least 50 groups of fans walk into the office wanting to know more about the film.” She said people come from all over the world to see Preston High School, Pedro’s house, and other filming locations as a layover before heading to Yellowstone National Park. “If you talk to a lot of people in Preston, you’ll find a lot of people who have become a bit sick of it,” Gregerson said. “I still think it’s great that there’s still so much interest in the town this long after the movie.”

Besides the filming locations, the town used to host a Napoleon Dynamite festival. In 2005, the fest drew about 6000 people and featured a tater tot eating contest, a moon boot dancing contest, boondoggle keychains for sale, and a tetherball tournament. The fest was last held in 2008.

4. IDAHO ADOPTED A RESOLUTION COMMENDING THE FILMMAKERS.

Jerusha and Jared Hess
Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

In 2005, the Idaho legislature wrote a resolution praising Jared and Jerusha Hess and the city of Preston. HCR029 appreciates the use of tater tots for “promoting Idaho’s most famous export.” It extols bicycling and skateboarding to promote “better air quality,” and it says Kip and LaFawnduh’s relationship “is a tribute to e-commerce and Idaho’s technology-driven industry.” The resolution goes on to say those who “vote Nay on this concurrent resolution are Freakin’ Idiots.” Napoleon would be proud.

5. NAPOLEON WAS A DIFFERENT KIND OF NERD. 

Sure, he was awkward, but Napoleon wasn’t as intelligent as other film nerds. “He’s not a genius,” Heder told The Huffington Post. “Maybe he’s getting good grades, but he’s not excelling; he’s just socially awkward. He doesn’t know how much of an outcast he is, and that’s what gives him that confidence. He’s trying to be cool sometimes, but mostly he just goes for it and does it.”

6. THE TITLE SEQUENCE FEATURED SEVERAL DIFFERENT SETS OF HANDS.

Eight months before the theatrical release, Fox Searchlight had Hess film a title sequence that made it clear that the film took place in 2004, not in the ’80s or ’90s. Napoleon’s student ID reveals the events occur during the 2004-2005 school year. Heder’s hands move the objects in and out of the frame, but Fox didn’t like his hangnails. “They flew out a hand model a couple weeks later, who had great hands, but was five or six shades darker than Jon Heder,” Hess told Art of the Title. “If you look, there are like three different dudes’ hands—our producer’s are in there, too.”

7. THE MOVIE MESSED UP NETFLIX’S ALGORITHMS.

Beginning in 2006, Cinematch—Netflix’s recommendation algorithm software—held a contest called The Netflix Prize. Anyone who could make Cinematch’s predictions at least 10 percent more accurate would win $1 million. Computer scientist Len Bertoni had trouble predicting whether people would like Napoleon Dynamite. Bertoni told The New York Times the film is “polarizing,” and the Netflix ratings are either one or five stars. If he could accurately predict whether people liked the movie, Bertoni said, then he’d come much closer to winning the prize. That didn’t happen for him.

The contest finally ended in 2009 when Netflix awarded the grand prize to BellKor’s Pragmatic Chaos, who developed a 10.06 percent improvement over Cinematch’s score.

8. NAPOLEON ACCIDENTLY GOT A BAD PERM.

© 2004 Twentieth Century Fox

Heder got his hair permed the night before shooting began—but something went wrong. Heder called Jared and said, “‘Yeah, I got the perm but it’s a little bit different than it was before,’” Hess told Rolling Stone. “He showed up the night before shooting and he looked like Shirley Temple! The curls were huge!” They didn’t have much time to fix the goof, so Hess enlisted Jerusha and her cousin to re-perm it. It worked, but Jon wasn’t allowed to wash his hair for the next three weeks. “So he had this stinky ‘do in the Idaho heat for three weeks,” Jared said. “We were shooting near dairy farms and there were tons of flies; they were all flying in and out of his hair.”

9. LAFAWNDUH’S REAL-LIFE FAMILY STARRED IN THE MOVIE.

Shondrella Avery played LaFawnduh, the African American girlfriend of Kip, Napoleon’s older brother (played by Aaron Ruell). Before filming, Hess phoned Avery and said, “‘You remember that there were no black people in Preston, Idaho, right? Do you think your family might want to be in the movie?’ And that’s how it happened,” Avery told Los Angeles Weekly. Her actual family shows up at the end when LaFawnduh and Kip get married.

10. A SHORT-LIVED ANIMATED SERIES ACTED AS A SEQUEL.

In 2012, Fox aired six episodes of Napoleon Dynamite the animated series before they canceled it. All of the original actors returned to supply voices to their characters. The only difference between the film and the series is Kip is not married. Heder told Rolling Stone the episodes are as close to a sequel as fans will get. “If you sit down and watch those back to back, you’ve got yourself a sequel,” he said. “Because you’ve got all the same characters and all the same actors.”

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