Thursday, June 21, 2007

07-17-2007 – The Edmonton Queen

Running in front of the storm, the wind rips down the river valley to whip the deck of the boat. We dodge skittering plastic chairs, weigh down napkins and menus with plates and cellphones. We ought to be taking shelter down on the dining deck with the rest of the lubbers, but something keeps us on station; we paid money for these tickets, and damned if we’re going to waste them huddled inside a floating restaurant. Besides, we can’t just abandon these nachos…

This Father’s Day started out with great promise, breakfasttime showers breaking to summer sunshine. A good day for a family cruise on the Edmonton Queen, riverboat pride of the North Saskatchewan. Down by Rafter’s Landing the heat raised that damp, good valley smell from the soaked greenery as a kid at the ticket trailer – obviously well-drilled in the unforgiving ways of transport – wailed in fear: “Daddy, we’ll miss the boat! Daddy! We’ll miss the BOOOO-OAT!”

Relax, kid; you sound like your mom. Besides, even if you miss this sailing, you’ll have years and years in which to try again. After some early error-comedy and fun-poking, and with the passage of time allowing us to come to terms with her depth-proscribed area of operation, the Queen has become a fixture in mainstream Edmontonian hearts, a slightly silly but beloved extravagance, like the Chateau Lacombe’s revolving restaurant or the Igloo Room at WEM. She’s now featured in too many paintings, murals and tourist brouchures to be allowed to sink or scuttle, literally or metaphorically.

Still, regulations require lifejacket drill. As the girl on the loudspeaker goes over the floatation-device procedure and gives us the rundown of riverboat Dos and Don’ts, she mentions something about the “Stern Bar”. Immediately I’m taken out of the safety moment, visualizing such a place. Concrete bar-top and form-follows-function furnishings, industrial lighting, barmaids in grey librarian tweeds giving you the drinks they decide you need and not taking any shit about it. Some kind of dystopian sci-fi tavern music. I like it; it’d be a refreshing change from the usual vaguely inept chirpiness…

Unfortunately, the only thing stern about the Stern Bar – other than its picturesque location near the churning paddlewheels – is the boat’s security detail, whose main job seems to be patrolling the gunwales like sailors repelling boarders, stopping safety-conscious moms and dads from lifting their precious little ones up past guardrail level for a better look at the river they’re now dangling over. This duty keeps the vigilant marines very busy.

The Stern Bar pours Santa Carolina, a real fightin’ Cabernet. With a pronounced tannic rush taking point and playfully aggressive notes of blackcurrant and chem lab on the nose, this frisky claretoid presents well in its plastic catering goblet. I tip the barmaid two bucks for generosity; she poured until the wine formed a meniscus and I had to stoop-n’-slurp before I could carry it away without danger to my light-colored sport coat.

Back at the family table, the conversation has turned – as I’m sure many an Edmonton Queen conversation has turned – to the subject of river-valley development. Details aside, the consensus seems to be that Louise McKinney park should have been / should be developed with a riverfront commercial strip “like Granville Island.” Parking, strolling and spending, slurping $10 margaritas on a chain-restaurant patio while watching reflected mini-lights twinkle on the dark water… this is the new dream for the valley. Because God forbid we maintain a zone that’s not actively picking your pocket; any space that’s not blaring satellite radio over the white noise of espresso machines is waste land. Besides, as is strenuously mentioned, “you could make nothing but serious money down there!”

The storm’s blowing up harder now as we round the bend before the turnaround point, Capilano Bridge like a mirage in the distance. There are tents in the trees below the topside condoscape; friendly bums(?) wave hello. Now rain’s coming, with wind that pushes my half-filled glasstic toward me as if to say “Drink up! Drink up!” We’re the only ones left on deck in the tempest, save for the security dudes stacking chairs so they don’t waltz away. I imagine it more epic than it is, imagine mythical Voyage of Sinbad monsters in the water, hiding in the aspens… the Sirens of the Storm Sewer Outfall…

“Don’t listen, men! Their song will ensorcel your wits! Stop your ears with wax!”

Except there is no wax at hand; there is only… nacho cheese.

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