Guns, Grub and a Satellite Ground Station – My trip to Alberta

I am sitting in a restaurant surrounded by co-workers. A server comes comes by with a skewer of beef and looks at me; As I ponder whether I trying to fit more delicious meat into my already full stomach was a good idea, one of my co-workers nodes ‘yup’ and another slice is loaded onto my plate. This was my first evening of a week in Calgary.

Things had been a bit challenging of late at work. The company was growing from a small operation to a medium-sized business and was experiencing all the associated growing pains that go along with it. On my small team we were going through more then a few changes; we had recently lost one person, hired two new ones and the workload for everyone was pretty high. Management had decided that some in-person face-time and team-building was needed to get us back on track and so it was that I found myself on an all-expenses paid trip to Calgary for some in-person bonding time with my co-workers.

So, why Calgary? Well our boss lives there for one, plus two of our other team members live there and I’m a relatively short 60 minute flight away. It was by far the most convenient location for most of our team and so I found myself making my way back to Calgary, just a few weeks after the last time I had visited. Definitely not someplace I expected to be heading back to so soon, but a free trip is a free trip and I’ll take it!

The Hotel

My boss had booked the 3 of us out of towers rooms in a 3 star hotel called ‘Hotel Arts’ right in the heart of downtown. He also booked a conference room that the six of us could use during working hours for discussions. The hotel is an interesting place – the outside is non-descript, a generic white multistory building that could be any apartment building or hotel. In fact, it’s so non-descript that I managed to walk past it on my first day in town. It probably didn’t help that the front facade was under construction, with scaffolding covering most of it.

Once I entered the building, however, I quickly discovered where the ‘Arts’ part of the name came into play. The architecture is something truly unique. Walking through the front doors you find yourself facing an outdoor pool, surrounded on all sides by hallways. Imediatly to my left was the htel’s front desk.

The hotel recommends booking your swim time in advance, which seemed odd to me until I realized just how popular it is. Morning, noon and night the hotel’s pool was slammed with all kinds of people having a good time. In fact, there were so many different groups of people that the six of us are convinced most of the patrons were not actually staying at the hotel. One of the major selling points is the fact that you can order drinks and food to consume poolside, and while I’m not entirely sold on the sensibility of consuming alcohol and food while frolicking in a pool, I can definitely see the appeal and everyone out there seemed to be having a blast.

The layout of the hotel is truly unique. While the pool is technically an outdoor pool, it is still the centerpiece of the ground floor, being a small square in the center with hallways surrounding it on all sides. To enter the pool you come through the lobby and go left, and then right, or take the long way around by going straight, hanging a left and then another left. The hallways surrounding the pool are also access portals to the conference rooms on one side, and the hotel’s bar and restaurant on the other side. Directly adjacent to the front door is the reception desk, and just beyond it the elevators to take you up to the second through twelfth floors which house the rooms.

I neglected to take any pictures of the interior, but the above photo-sphere gives you a good idea of the layout – it is looking from the perspective of the front desk with the pool in front, the restaurant to the left and the main entrance would be on the right. Just beyond the restaurant (down the hallway with the bike) is the hotel’s bar.

Speaking of restaurants, this is one of the few hotels I’ve stayed at where breakfast was not included. Instead, you were encouraged to visit the hotel’s ‘Yellow Door Bistro’ and buy a breakfast for what is a reasonably expensive price. Due to it’s convenience I ended up visiting the ‘Yellow Door’ on several occasions for breakfast and once for dinner. It’s an interesting place; in my opinion they are trying a little too hard to make a name for themselves as an artisanal place with offbeat decorations, quirky furniture and peculiar menu options (ground duck? really?). The prices are certainly reflective of someplace trying to sell you an ‘experience;’ I don’t think I ever managed to get out of there for under $30 (thank goodness my employer was covering the bill!)

My breakfast complaints aside, I was pretty happy with my stay at the hotel; the layout was truly unique, the place (with the pool in the center) had a cool vibe and was a constant hive of activity and the conference room was more then adequate for what we needed. I was actually satisfied with my bed and the sound dampening from the hallway – this being one of the few hotel’s I’ve stayed at where I didn’t really have an issue getting to sleep. The included WiFi was a little weak with the “premium” service included in our conference room booking being rate limited to just 10mbps and we did find that getting in and out of the conference room was a little awkward (we were never given keys, so it was constantly a struggle to find the manager to let us in and out, least we should leave our belongings unlocked), but with those being the biggest complaints I think we made out alright on the accommodations front.

Team Building

As I mentioned, this was a work function in order to try and boost moral for a team needing a bit of a boost. Our small team of 4 was still reeling from an unexpected departure while on-boarding a brand new employee that same week. While working 100% remote is really convenient, I have also found it to be an exceptionally isolating experience and having the opportunity to work alongside real people (some of whom I had only met face-to-face once, despite having worked together over a year) did wonders to improve my outlook on the job (so by that metric the exercise was a success). Astonishingly one thing I did miss was my morning commute. Even though I work remotely, I make a point of working from an office physically separate from home which means I need to travel there. Owning a hobby company has it’s perks since I am able to work out of the company offices every day, rather then staying at home. Being that I was staying and working at the same hotel, I found I myself missing some separation between sleep and work, so I found myself taking a morning wander a few kilometers around the block to transition into a work mindset. It’s amusing that two of my co-workers commented on enjoying the novelty of actually commuting into work, though neither of them has changed any of their long-term habits of working from home.

I am pleased to report none of this special summit involved trust exercises or any HR-approved games. For the most part we engaged in some pretty high-level technical discussions about the state of our infrastructure and improvements we could make in the medium and long term. We also had some productive discussions about hiring and even managed to hammer out a job description for (hopefully) some near-future hires. Just being in the same room with my co-workers and having the ability to organically share ideas was incredibly powerful and something that I wasn’t even aware of how much I was missing.

It was also fun to get caught-up with co-workers outside of working hours. I had a great time hanging out with our two newest hires in the hotel bar while pounding back hazy-IPAs and chowing down on a $30 plate of nachos (yes, the pricing at the bar was from the same playbook at the Yellow Door). Both of these guys are old school Silicon Valley types (think Google before it was public) and they both not only posses a wealth of technical knowledge but also a ton of stories about the absolutely bat-shit crazy things that go on at companies in the valley. While I get the impression that my politics don’t exactly align, I’m a pretty easy-going person and at no point did things get awkward, or did we run out things to talk about. This was one of the few times I’ve been in a bar late enough to experience last call.

This is what a $30 plate of nachos looks like. Underwhelming.


While most of our work time was filled with discussion in the conference room, we did get out of town (quite literally) on Wednesday. Alberta is often described as the Texas of Canada and in no way is that more apparent then with the gun culture. The province’s gun ownership rates are among the highest in the country and shooting is a cherished past-time for both rural and urban Albertans. With three of my team born and raised Albertans, and two team members from the gun-obsessed United States, it should come as no surprise that our day of team-building revolved around shooting. While I’ve been raised in a completely different environment (left-leaning Victoria, BC generally wants nothing to do with firearms) and had never actually handled a gun before, I’m usually willing to try things once and was actually kind of looking forward to our day out on the range if for no other reason then to see what the fuss was about.

While we could have booked a shooting range (Alberta has enough of them), my boss had something a little more informal planned out. About 40 minutes outside of Calgary there is a town of 32000 called Cochrane. Just past Cochrane there is an unassuming turn-off onto Highway 40, following Highway 40 brings you to the ‘South Ghost’ recreational area which is a 6.6 Hectare public use park popular with ATVers. It was in the middle of this park, far away from most signs of civilization where we were to have our fun with guns.

But, let’s start at the beginning. Three of us were staying at the hotel in downtown Calgary, one of us lived in the vicinity of downtown, while my boss and another co-worker lived further out in the direction we were heading. We decided that the four of us close to downtown would meet at the hotel and head out to meet the rest of our crew at my boss’s house. 9AM rolls around and I find myself polishing off some rather pricey toast at the Yellow Door bistro. My boss had rented a Toyota Tacoma for the trip – a pickup featuring all-wheel drive and enough room for the 4 of us. Being the only one without a severe hangover or who hadn’t started the day with a Bloody Mary, I was nominated to drive, and so I found myself rolling through the streets of Calgary just before 10AM on a Wednesday driving a pickup that was… larger then anything I was accustomed to driving. Fortunately, after a couple of lane changes I got a feel for the size of the vehicle and we made it to my boss’s place without incident.

Out at my boss’s house we met up with the rest of the crew, loaded up three vehicles, and took a last bathroom break before heading out for the great rural outdoors. It wasn’t long before we hit our first snafu – a text from Frank (one of my co-workers): “I am still here.” What did it even mean? The message was just generic enough to be completely ambiguous – was this an old message from the hotel? Did we leave Frank back at the house? Were aliens trying to contact us? I call the other trucks in our convoy on the radio – “does anyone have Frank?” The answer, which you may have already guessed, was “no” we had apparently managed to leave while he was still in the bathroom. Back we went to re-unite with our lost teammate.

Fortunately the disappearance of Frank was the only real hiccup on our way out of town. Just outside of Cochrane we encountered some wicked road construction (single-lane alternating for about 10km) but we managed to make it to our highway 40 turn-off in just under an hour. Highway 40 is a 2-lane paved road which twists and winds it’s way from the Highway 1A turn off through some planes, alongside a river, over some hills and finally into a forest. This was actually a pretty fun little drive, the changing scenery and constant twists and turns made it quite interesting. Some 25km after we left the main highway I found myself following the boss’s truck into an unassuming gravel staging lot just off the road. Google Maps would later identify this as the “turn to Ghost.”

This unassuming little turn is actually the gateway to the ATV tracks

What followed was some of the most technical driving I have ever done, putting even the road to Braidan to shame. A few meters off the main road I found myself following a gravel path that was only a little wider then our truck. The “road” was full of potholes (more like mini creators) and large chunks of gravel came dislodged at a moment’s notice. I took this road SLOW and even then the four of us in the truck were bouncing around as though we were on an amusement park ride.

The road got even more interesting the further into the park we got. We quickly found ourselves winding through trees and up and down hills that would be intimidating even on a paved road. At one point I found myself creeping up a hill that had to be 30% grade – “put it in 4-wheel and just keep going, nice and slow” were my instructions. Had I not been driving I would have taken a picture – this was probably the most insane driving I had ever done. We made it, and I feel my skills as a driver should be increased by at least 10%. The view, when we finally made it out from the trees, was incredible with an absolutely gorgeous view of the mountains, though the sheer drop immediately to my left was enough to keep me paying attention to the road in front of me.

As insane as this part of the drive was, things got even more “interesting” when our lead car took a sudden left onto what I suppose could be considered another road. If possible, this road was even narrower then the first with even less gravel and more mud. A few meters after the run we came to a massive puddle (more of a mini lake); easily 3 ft deep and 10ft long, and, since the road went right through it so did we! I’m happy to report we made it through the puddle, and through at least two others that were just like it. Finally, about 3km after the turn I found myself pulling into a clearing with a gas well in front of me. My boss pulled over to the side. We had arrived at our destination! Hallelujah! Suddenly the existence of the road made sense – it must be a service road to access the well. How on earth anyone managed to find this place originally is beyond me.

The spot was well worth the hellish drive to get there. It had a phenomenal view of the mountains to our Northwest and a great big grassy clearing where we were able to set up camp. It was warm, but the sun wasn’t too extreme and there were few bugs out to harass us. This was an absolutely perfect spot to hang out and for a few hours it felt like we were the only ones in the world.

The view as absolutely incredible

I took a few moments to stretch my legs and become re-acquainted with firm ground before turning to face the hive of activity before me.

Everything seemed to fall into place like a well-oiled machine. Clearly this was a regular past time. Out came an awning from my boss’ pickup truck, out of nowhere there appeared a half dozen camping chairs and a folding table was presented on which were placed the guns. And oh boy were there a lot of guns!

In Victoria, I find we often like to poke fun at the gun-crazed Americans to the south of us, but clearly in Canada we have our own enthusiasts. I couldn’t begin to tell you the different makes and models of each firearm, only that we had at least two shotguns and at least 6 different kinds of rifles.

Guns! So many guns

None of what we shot was automatic – after all we do live in Canada; no machine guns or assault rifles here, but I was still impressed by the variety of different weapons we had available. All of them legal too.

I was also impressed by the professionalism of my boss and his buddy. I have always tended to think of gun lovers as being on the crazy side (“yeee-hawww let’s go shoot some things”), but the level of decorum and attention to detail has certainly shattered that preconception. The entire day was very well organized, with everyone receiving a safety briefing and specific instructions on where and how to shoot. At the same time, none of it was overbearing and we were all left mostly to our own devices – were were all adults and being treated as such, which was refreshing.

So, the time had come to shoot my first firearm. Being a reasonably shy individual I likely would have been content to sit back and observe the proceedings with bemusement, however, one of my co-workers was kind enough to take me under his wing and show me the ropes. Once I had a rifle in my arm and was given explicit permission to shoot the thing, I felt no hesitation squeezing the trigger. BANG! and my bullet whizzed off in front of me, kicking up some dirt in the vicinity of the target. Close, but no cigar.

Three things surprised me about the rifle I was shooting. Firstly, I had expected the recoil to be much worse then it actually was. While there was some kickback, it was far less then I had expected. Secondly, I was surprised by the noise. I had expected it to be much louder. Now, I was wearing earplugs, but for some reason I had expected the sound of a firing rifle right next to my head to be deafening, instead it was merely loud. The third thing that surprised me was the weight of the gun. FI never thought of guns as weighing anything but after firing just a few rounds I could already feel my arms getting tired. I don’t know why I assumed it would be light since I was holding a metal tube up in the air, funny the assumptions we make.

In addition to target shooting with the rifles, we also did some skeet shooting with shotguns. Between the two, I preferred the skeet shooting, probably because I was more successful at it, and there is something insanely satisfying about seeing that clay disc explode when you hit it.

Overall, I would say I enjoyed my first shooting experience, though I can definitely say it strikes a lot of similarities with golf for me in that the more I miss the target, the more frustrated I get and the worse I end up being.

After some burgers and hotdogs for lunch (whoever thought to bring along the propane camping stove is an absolute genius) we had a special treat. 6 jars of Tannerite we could shoot at.

Tannerite explodes when you shoot it

Tannerite is a really interesting substance used primarily for target shooting. It is a binary explosive that consists of two compounds you mix together before use. The really cool thing is that even when mixed together the compound is quite stable – you can shake it, toss it or drop it without incident – until it is it by an extremely high velocity projectile, such as a bullet. Then it explodes.

My boss had 6 of these little guys spread out around our firing range and after lunch we each took turns shooting at them. I’m very pleased to report that I managed to hit the 3rd or 4th one which more then made up for my frustrations target shooting. After the last canister exploded, we made a point of cleaning up all of our shells (boy was there a lot) and packed up camp for the long trip back to town.

The Food. So Much Food

I would describe my boss as a bit of a foodie. He’s always on the lookout for unique restaurants and always has recommendations for places to go. While my first trip to Calgary was more of a “pick your own adventure” my second trip was a curated tour of some of the best restaurants in town, and naturally provided a superior experience. Over the course of the 5 days we visited a total of nine restaurants each one with it’s own cool vibe or unique menu. It’s difficult for me to rate any of them, but here are some of the highlights.

There was Pampa, a Brazilian style steakhouse where the servers walked from table to table with skewers of meat and carved slices off directly onto your plate.

We went to a Japanese village where I got the nickname birthday boy (they asked if it was anyone’s birthday, so I replied with “do I get anything if it is?”). The experience is a dinner and entertainment combined with the chef cooking your meal on a grill directly in front of you.

We visited Major Tom’s which is an upscale restaurant in the heart of the downtown core on the 40th floor of a skyscraper.

There was the Beltliner which is a classic 1950’s diner vibe serving up some decent breakfast and brunch food and of course there was a whole litany of “hole in the wall” restaurants and pubs we visited throughout the week – including once place that had sub-$30 nachos which blew the pants of the ones at the hotel bar. I suppose I am rapidly becoming a nacho’s connoisseur.

This is what $20 nachos outside the hotel looks like

The entire culinary experience was exceptional and I would not be surprised if I put on a few extra pounds over the course of that trip!

The Satellite Ground Station

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Christopher trip if there wasn’t a weird radio aspect to it, and that is exactly how I rounded out the whole adventure.

Some weeks previous, my business partner had found for sale a decommissioned cable TV headend site in a rural pert of the province and I was seriously considering putting an offer on it. Despite the assurances of the realtor that the property was in good shape and had power as well as communications service, it’s never a great idea to buy property sight-unseen and since I was already in Alberta I felt somewhat obligated to make the 6 hour round trip to see it.

Fortunately for me, when I informed my parents they decided to meet me out in Calgary and we would all head out to look at the property together. My mom does have relatives in Edmonton (about a 3 hour dive from Calgary) and we have a family friend in the city as well, so it wasn’t purely a trip to see my perspective property, but I was the catalyst for the whole thing and I’m glad it prompted my parents to get out and do some visiting – it had been an incredibly long time since they had seen any of these relatives.

My parents had arranged to spend a few nights at the family friend’s place in Calgary, and so it was that on Friday evening, after saying my goodbyes to my co-workers I found myself wandering around the block adjacent to the hotel, looking for my father.

I quickly spotted someone who I was pretty darn sure I recognized, and sure enough I had my confirmation when my father came around the corner. It had probably been close to 15 years since I had last seen our family friend but I still recognized him nonetheless, quite surprising how that is!

Not much else to report from this day, I got everyone caught up on my escapades and was congratulated for doing Alberta things while in Alberta and we all turned in for an early night as we had a long day ahead of us tomorrow.

The property I was looking at is in a small town called Coronation. Coronation is a roughly 3 and a quarter hour drive from Calgary, so if we wanted to make it there and back in time for dinner we needed to be on the road pretty early on. The first leg our our drive was relatively uneventful, though once we left the Calgary city limits things got rural pretty quick. It wasn’t long before the highway become just two lanes and the only thing we could see for miles was road and fields.

One thing that has always blown me away about the United States is the extreme rural/urban divide; you can go from a city which will have relatively progressive values and a modern outlook on the world, to a rural setting in pretty short order where the social values come right out of the turn of the century and anti-government conspiracy theories drive the narrative. While I had never really considered Canada as being the same way, the billboards I spied comparing COVID-19 vaccinations to the Holocaust tell a different story. Fortunately, the three of us are a white and follow a traditional family unit so we fit in well. I suspect our rural-Alberta experience might have been a bit different had that not been the case.

We made good time, and by around noon we found ourselves pulling off the highway into Coronation, Alberta – population 868.

Our first encounter with another human being was not terribly confidence inspiring, immediately after pulling onto the main drag though town a farmer on a tractor gave us the most angry and sullen glare I have received in recent memory. Not quite the red carpet welcome! Maybe he was having a shitty day, but it did leave me wondering where we had found ourselves.

We located the property without too much difficulty – in a town that is only 3.5 square kilometers it’s difficult to hide anything. The site was actually pretty nice; 3 C-band satellite dishes made up the bulk of the fixtures and a shed with a small antenna tower filled out the rest of the 120′ long piece of land. The view to the south was unobstructed, with only a short square building, which appeared to be some kind of communications hub in the way. Overall, it looked exactly the same as it did in 2013 when Google Street view last cruised through the town.

The property as I found it in July of 2023

I wandered around the site, assessed the conditions of the dishes, confirmed it did appear to have power (at least it had a meter box and conduit disappearing into the ground), validated there was no overwhelming interference on the HF or VHF bands and that the building looked to be in pretty good shape. Overall I didn’t see any red flags that would be cause for alarm.

Our survey of the property complete, my parents (who are heavily into Geocaching) wanted to explore a bit of the town and since I had spied a number of Ubiquiti antennas around, I wanted to do a bit of an explore myself and see if I could find the local WISP, since that could very well be my only option for Internet (after all, I was thinking of buying the cable TV headend in town so there was definitely no cable Internet!)

I quickly spied a tower that looked a lot like a WISP tower, and I wandered over. Sure enough, I know my antennas and I found myself at the headquarters of VitalNet communications. I snapped a couple pictures, noted their website and phone numbers and then headed back into town with my parents who were already trying to track down the first geocache.

For those unfamiliar, a geocache is a logbook hidden in a weatherproof container. The GPS co-ordinates of the cache are shared online so that searchers can find it and record their discovery in the physical log and online. In concept it sounds like a fun hobby, in reality it seemed to involve a lot of my father crawling around on the ground looking into holes and crevices while I tried to pretend like I had nothing to do with him. While my father crawled around on the ground, my mother tried to explain what was going on to a couple of confused ladies who had stopped for lunch at a nearby gazebo. I was hoping they’d have more information on the history of the property, but alas they were not from Coronation and had none to offer. By this time my father had been successful in recovering the cache and the three of us moved on.

One thing that stood out to me was just how empty the town seemed to be. It was the middle of the afternoon on a Saturday, yet aside from the three of us, the two ladies in the gazebo and one dude ripping around on a hoverboard, the town was basically devoid of all people. My parents had one geocache left to find, so we headed back towards the highway to try and track it down.

Immediately after you pull off the highway, there is a rest stop with a giant metal crown and the official ‘welcome to Coronation’ sign. It also houses the town’s old railway station (now a museum) and it happened to be the site of a wedding with probably half the town in attendance. This might have explained where all the people were! As it also happened, this is where the second geocache was supposed to be hidden. We didn’t crash the wedding, but we were also unsuccessful at finding the cache, and since we had another long drive ahead of us we decided to zip out just after 2pm and head for Calgary.

And that basically wrapped up my trip! We spent a last night in Calgary and by 4PM on Sunday we were catching our (3 hour delayed) flight home. From my perspective the trip was a great success; I definitely felt more connected with my co-workers, I got to experience some absolutely mind-blowing food, I experienced one heck of a crazy off-road adventure, I shot my first firearm and I even got to visit an old satellite ground station. What more could you ask for in a week? The bar has undeniably been raised for any future vacations!

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