Category Archives: Canada

A Canadian Summer… a passion for mountain towns, Whistler and Kimberley

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For now, I’ve bid farewell to my home in Canada. To my pine trees and my deck, perfectly-placed for moon and star gazing. To a place where the long summer evenings are precious with friends and family. It’s a home, and a town, that ever welcomes me when I return.

Now back in India, the inevitable week of adjustment is always my reality. I reconcile that I can’t jump into my vehicle and cruise the mountain roads or simply walk and breathe the fresh air. I already miss chats with family and not relying on Skype dates. Still, this past week was reserved to get over jet-lag and savour a little time before life gets busy for the rest of the year: final editing on a new book project, an upcoming visit from a dear friend, a retreat to Penang in November and the arrival of family for Christmas. But for just a few more days, I let vignettes of a Canadian summer play in my mind…

 

DSCF5086A passion for trains…for a mountain lifestyle

Kai looked very much the part in his striped train conductor’s hat. Greeting each passenger one by one as they stepped down from the pristine and impressive Rocky Mountaineer, Kai delighted them with a ‘high five’ and a warm “Hello!”

“You’re the little fellow we were told about,” one gentleman remarked. “So I hear you really love this train?” Kai nodded with a broad smile.

The picturesque station for the Rocky Mountaineer is just south of Whistler, British Columbia. We watched the train round the bend, and ease its massive weight to a halt along the edge of Nita Lake.

We were sojourning on its waterfront at The Lodge at Nita Lake. An idyllic place where canoes and kayaks tether to the Lodge’s private dock. We ventured out on early morning paddles – ducks floated gracefully in a line, loons called in the morning mist and a black bear browsed for berries at the water’s edge.

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That afternoon we had cycled along the trails to Whistler, passing families canoeing and picnicking by the water’s edge. As we cycled from lake to lake, we came upon sculptures set in the lush riparian forest and kayakers paddling lazily through waterways. On emerald green waters a floatplane waited alongside a canoe – emblematic of Whistler’s coveted lifestyle.

And if you’re fortunate, you’ll spy another black bear up close. We rolled up to a group of cyclists stopped on the trail. “Wouldn’t go any further,” a local cautioned, motioning to a healthy-sized bear in the bushes up ahead. It was our second sighting of the day, a reminder that Whistler is very much their territory.

“Think we should leave that big guy alone”, the friendly cyclist suggested, hopping back on his bike. “Come on, I’ll show you a different trail.” We cycled further and saw more of the postcard-perfect town, quiet and serene, away from the multitude of tourists – a peek into the daily life of a local. It was late afternoon by this time and I was conscious that the Rocky Mountaineer would soon be arriving at Nita Lake Lodge.

 

As the impressive train slowed into the station just after 6 pm, I immediately noticed Kai. He went about his unofficial duties conscientiously – rolling out the red carpet, raising the Canadian flag then that of British Columbia, then positioning himself to welcome the travellers.

“This little guy is here every chance he gets,” Janice Bondi, the train’s manager remarked with affection. “You’d be surprised how many regulars we have at each stop.” As I watched Kai, I couldn’t imagine a more committed train lover.

 

As his father watched proudly nearby, I knew there was a reason why I too wanted to greet this iconic train in the Rocky Mountains. Its arrival evoked a sense of that slower, older lifestyle that early pioneers must have experienced. Witnessing the passion of a boy named Kai, made it a little bit more special.

 

A passion for Whistler, and for hats

Like me, Erik is fond of hats and considers himself fortunate to work with his passion. It was easy to warm to his friendly and engaging nature. “I ordered my first hat when I was ten years old,” he explained, “I like that you can customize your outfit with just a different hat.”

And Erik knows them well: beanies, flat caps, fedoras, buckets, suns, cowboys and of course the iconic Canadian toque. The Hat Gallery in the heart of Whistler is a place to try something different, or stick with what you love – it’s always a fedora for me.

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“What kind of a pinch do you like in your fedora?” Erik asked as he scanned his displays. He patiently searched and suggested, all the while exuding an obvious love of his job. We found the fedora up high on a shelf – yes it was the perfect choice.

Erik is Canadian and admittedly a bit of an anomaly in Whistler’s workforce. The ski town has attracted thousands of young workers from other countries, especially from Australia and the U.K. I was told that most arrive with a two year work visa, but start the process of becoming a resident almost immediately. It’s an easy decision for them. They choose Whistler for the lifestyle – skiing, paddling, hiking and a mountain that transforms into a biker’s dream in the summer months.

 

Whistler’s pedestrian-friendly town is lively with tourists from all corners of the globe. Enticed by the allure of the mountains, the activities, the cool bars and restaurants, it attracts millions of tourists yearly and has grown beyond all expectations.

Two tribes of First Nations shared this territory before trappers, traders and loggers arrived in the mid 1800’s. All would change when the Phillips, a young couple from the United States, opened a fishing lodge in 1914. Rainbow Lodge enjoyed great success, especially renowned for its fishing package...return train trip from Vancouver, 2 nights at the lodge and fishing for $6.00…

DSCF5057 (1)Visitors could also hike and horseback ride, enjoy a paddle on Alta Lake, or play with Teddy, Mrs. Philips’s pet bear. Myrtle Philips was the pillar of this new community that would eventually spread to nearby Whistler.

A ski hill developed in the ’60’s, a smattering of houses and the village itself in the early ’70’s. When the town needed a centre, town planner Eldon Beck planned a pedestrian village “where one could get lost, where things flowed like a river.” He could not have foreseen the success the mountain city would one day enjoy – being part-host to the 2010 Winter Olympics certainly helped. The Olympic rings are a tourist draw in themselves, a must-have backdrop for photos and selfies.

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Whether it was Erik or other young people I met who couldn’t imagine leaving this outdoor haven, the passion for life in Whistler is palpable.

And of passion, there was one more stop to make. The new Audain Art Museum – ‘where art meets nature, nature meets art’. It is a fine collection of Northwest Coastal Masks, Emily Carr paintings and more. I have a great admiration for the gifted, if wonderfully eccentric, Canadian icon. The Audain is iconic as well. Designed as a modern day longhouse and raised above the forest floor, seemingly one with the trees in which it nestles, it is a recent addition to Whistler’s cultural mix – already an essential counterpoint anchoring the proud past to the present.

 

The pride of a ‘forever hometown’…

We enjoyed a quintessential summer road trip from Whistler, back through Vancouver, and eastward toward the Okanagan, Canada’s wine region, a detour to Banff, and back to our own mountain town in the interior of BC. Like Whistler, not only is Kimberley a ski town, it’s a summer feast of bike trails, golf courses, rivers and lakes. For us this town anchors our peripatetic life. It represents warmth and stability, the place we chose for our family home.

 

 

When a ski trip took us to the small city of 7,000 or so, we were immediately smitten. Situated in the Purcell Mountains with the Rockies as its backdrop, it seemed like an easy choice and we resolved that no matter where we live in the world, this is where we’d return to.

Kimberley was once home to the largest lead-zinc mine in the world and has long been a community that welcomes newcomers. The Scandiavians pioneered our first ski-hill, the Germans and Austrians gave us our Bavarian-themed town centre, the Platzl. It is a setting where, on a Saturday afternoon, you’re as likely to meet a barber-shop quartet as a party of golfers in town for a weekend foray. Kimberley might well be known as a golf and ski destination, but people are drawn to this mountain town for many more reasons. Increasingly young families are choosing Kimberley for its lifestyle, a place to raise children in a safe and active community. But then that is nothing new to generations of settlers.

 

I met Clarence, serenading visitors about to board the Kimberley Underground Mining Railway. Commuter trains no longer run to Kimberley, but this small train wends its way up the ski hill, or tours into the now closed Cominco Mine.

 

Clarence was playing ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’, rather fitting considering the wildfires that rendered the mountains hazy through some of the summer. He flashed a wide grin as I identified the song and again when he heard I was an accordion player too. I asked Clarence how long he’s played.

“Oh since I was ten or so,” he remarked speaking fondly of his instrument, then assuring me that he loves keeping the tourists happy. “About ten-thousand rode this little train last year…good for the town.”

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Clarence shared that he has been here, ‘a long while’, drawn here from a neighbouring province. I also made small-talk with the conductor as he waited for the 11 am tour to fill up.

“Are you from Kimberley?” I asked.

“I’ve been here for years, where else would I live?” I’m told matter-of-factly. People here get a little protective about this city, one of the highest in Canada – 1100 meters of altitude and only one stop-light. I hear this kind of unbridled hometown sentiment time and again. As Sonya, a good friend of mine, often comments, “Don’t get me started about how much I love this place.” She and her husband retired here three years ago and it quickly became their ‘forever hometown’.

Like Whistler, Kimberley has its share of locals who are passionate about their jobs and businesses. I’ve long been welcomed home by Robin and delight in her refined taste of home and kitchen wares she offers in her store, Grater Good. 

And I love the quirky and eclectic goods at Old Koots. “Hey Terry Anne, welcome home,” Janet and Wendy greet me as I wander through their door, hoping for that one-of-a-kind find.

The date for my hair appointment at Wolfy’s is always booked the minute I get into the country. While Kellie and her mother Pat fill me in on the latest news, I sink back into the small town vibe and delight in the scene…yes, it’s a little like the set of Steel Magnolias.

 

I stop in at Caprice’s Fine Art Studio to admire her latest works. Caprice and I share the love of art-books and of Emily Carr. We even share the same hometowns, our original, and now our adopted. “Sometimes you just know when something is right,” Caprice tells me.

 

I find myself at my favourite coffee shop, Bean Tree. With its retro furniture, its door always propped open by a ski boot, and its antler-adorned fireplace, its charming atmosphere typifies this unique town.

With friends and family having come and gone, it was time to pack and ‘close up’ the house. And with that, I only just remembered to grab my new hat from its perch on the antlers at Bean Tree. I’ll need it for the days ahead in India. The pattern of my life continues…

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Haida Gwaii…majestic and spiritual home of the Haida

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This is my first guest blog written by my son, Luke H. Wilson and his girlfriend, Trixie Pacis. On a recent trip to Haida Gwaii, they beautifully captured the essence of this remote, yet culturally rich destination in Canada’s Pacific North West.

 

The Highland Ranger took a sharp turn into a small cove and skidded to an abrupt stop on the pebbly beach of what once was K’uuna village. We disembarked quickly, eager to explore and relieved to be on land after two hours sailing across choppy seas. The rugged shoreline looked much like we had seen of Haida Gwaii so far, an archipelago of 150 islands located between Vancouver Island and the southern tip of the Alaskan Panhandle. On an Easter getaway from the city, we had reached the main island on a small propeller plane—its age belied by lavatory ashtrays.

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The morning mist revealing stunning vistas

Formerly known as the Queen Charlotte Islands, Haida Gwaii was renamed in 2010 as part of a restitution agreement between the indigenous Haida Nation and the provincial government of British Columbia. Despite its pristine wilderness earning it a spot on National Geographic’s list of ‘must-see places in the world’, it seems that relatively few have heard of it. For us, the notion of exploring Haida Gwaii first came from an unexpected source—a chance meeting with a German hitchhiker during Trixie’s solo road trip to Alaska last August. The almost spiritual wonder with which he spoke about the island resonated; we were curious to see if it would evoke a similar response in ourselves.

On the road to the Queen Charlotte harbour earlier that morning, we had no choice but to interrupt a convocation of eagles swooping and circling over their roadkill breakfast; there’s really only one main road on the island. As we passed slowly and reverently, we counted seven Bald Eagles perched in the trees above, piercing eyes ever watchful. Though tempted to linger for this rare and intimate glimpse of nature, we had a boat to catch.

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Captain Volker and Watchman Walter

We arrived at the docks as the morning sun burned through the mist, revealing pine-covered islands and snow-capped mountains. Equipped with extra layers and flasks of steaming coffee, we walked down the gangway to meet Danny, the colourful owner of Highlander Marine Services.

The guiding season doesn’t technically begin until May, and his company doesn’t typically offer guided tours, so it was by chance and generosity that this expedition came together. Coincidentally, Danny had been on our flight to Haida Gwaii, and was able to work some magic for us. He arranged our passage into Gwaii Haanas, the National Park Reserve and UNESCO World Heritage site that comprises the southern-third of the island.

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The Highland Ranger, our trusty vessel

Here we were on the Highland Ranger, two of twelve Haida Gwaii first-timers from all over the world. To prove the vessel was sound, Danny wryly explained that the Ranger had once even been used to recover a decomposing grey whale from the harbour. He introduced us to our captain, Volker, who’d worked his entire career on local waters, and our guide Walter, who’d spent many summers leading tours through the historic sites of Gwaii Haanas.

We were told that one such site, a village known as K’uuna (or Skedans by early European fur traders), would be our first stop. As we sped Southwards, we were whipped by crisp winds, sprayed by heavy waves and battered by the abrupt rise and fall of the boat’s metal benches. But breathtaking vistas and a thrilling, up-close encounter with a pod of grey whales made the journey more than worth any discomfort for self-admitted landlubbers.

At first glance, K’uuna didn’t appear to be much. In place of the well-preserved Haida village we had perhaps naively envisioned, we found a lush patch of forest nestled beneath a steep cliff, flanked on either side by a rocky, driftwood-laden beach. The only visible dwelling was a newly constructed cabin housing the summer watchmen who maintain and protect the site throughout the ‘busy’ tourist season. Walter had spent many summers as a watchman and it wasn’t until he began to walk us along K’uuna’s winding trails—marked with bright white clam-shells—that we slowly began to realize the extent of the history they watch over.

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Two mortuary poles, one leaning and one resting on the ground, protected by white clam shells

The ancestors of the Haida Nation first reached the islands of Haida Gwaii as early as 13,000 years ago. They developed a complex culture harmoniously intertwined with the abundant resources of land and sea. At one point, as many as 100 villages had cropped up throughout the archipelago—vibrant enclaves of skilled artists, seafarers, warriors and traders. European contact, which began in the late the 18th century, was initially an economic boon for many Haida clans who used their trading prowess to take advantage of the insatiable foreign demand for fur pelts.

This relationship ultimately had tragic consequences as diseases transmitted by the European traders and subsequent Christian missionaries decimated indigenous populations, wiping out 90% of the Haida people in a matter of decades. The scourge of smallpox, measles, and tuberculosis was so virulent that by 1890, the vast majority of villages had been abandoned entirely. We learned of this as we walked the paths of K’uuna; the white clam shells preventing us from unwittingly disturbing human remains and serving as a stark reminder of the catastrophic fate that had befallen it.

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Fallen roof beams under a blanket of moss

Before the epidemic, the village was home to over 700 people living in thirty communal longhouses lining the sheltered bay. Walter showed us all that remained of these dwellings—rectangular depressions in the soil, now overgrown. Could this be all we’d traveled so far to see?

But our initial disappointment soon faded as Walter began to paint for us the history of his people. As he pointed out four cedar corner posts—waist high and rotting —once supporting a longhouse, he described how numerous families lived, cooked and socialized under one roof. They were clearly once impressive structures, sometimes up to 30 meters long and over 15 meters wide; however, despite their size, custom required them to be constructed in just one day. According to Walter, the superstitious villagers feared that evil spirits would occupy the building site if it was left incomplete overnight.

The residents of a particular longhouse were rarely involved in the building of their own home; that task was given to members of neighbouring clans—a tradition designed to promote peace and unity throughout the community. Intricately carved and painted “house poles’, once adorning the front of the homes embodied totems of revered animals; orca, grizzly bear or mythological thunderbird. Each represented the identity, lineage, and social standing of its occupants. The shores were once also dotted with ‘mortuary poles’ honouring past chiefs and other prominent individuals. The largest of the Haida poles, these had a cavity at the top where the remains were enshrined, allowing the physical body to return to nature while providing an earthly home for the spirit of the deceased.

Few of the many totem poles that once towered over K’uuna remain; some still defy gravity, raked at alarming angles, but most lay on the ground beneath a blanket of moss in various stages of decomposition. Walter pointed to a faded carving of a bear. We crowded around the fallen pole, straining to glimpse the faint outline. Without Walter’s help, the symbolism of the carvings might have been lost on us. He revealed that in his time as a watchman, he had seen such a dramatic deterioration in the poles that he believes, in as little as a decade, the once beautiful and striking poles will be unrecognizable.

Instinctively, we asked: shouldn’t all of this be preserved so future visitors have the opportunity to learn about Haida culture first-hand? Walter paused thoughtfully, “In our culture, we believe that everything should be allowed to return to the earth”. This simple, yet profound, response provoked a fascinating discussion that continued throughout the day as much of what we observed circled back to the delicate and often contentious issue of cultural preservation.

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At Queen Charlotte Cultural Centre

At one point, Walter turned our attention to a mortuary pole and indicated that it was one of many painted by Emily Carr, the renowned British Columbian artist who traveled to Haida Gwaii in 1912. Her depictions of the haunting scene she found in K’uuna are an example of early attempts by outsiders to record Haida history, and she was not the only one to show concern.

Anthropologist Wilson Duff led an expedition to ‘salvage’ artifacts from the village in response to the encroachment of the logging industry in the 1950s, the repercussions of which were still evident in the scarred terrain beneath our feet, and the tire tracks left at alarming proximity to several mortuary poles.

Facing such threats, many were cut down, rolled to the beach using logs, and carted off to various places. (It is suspected that a container of poles—some no doubt from K’uuna—is to this day stored at the University of British Columbia, neither displayed nor allowed to return to the earth.) Though Duff had obtained permission, we got the sense there were, and likely still are, members of the Haida Nation who feel his actions were a sacrilege. Towards the end of our tour we passed a mortuary pole, slanting forty-five degrees but supported by a makeshift wooden brace. Walter shook his head, “I don’t know who did this but it’s not the Haida way—it should’ve been left to fall.”

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The rugged coast

At the end of a long day, which included a stop at Tanu, a larger Haida site and the final
resting place of celebrated sculptor Bill Reid, it was time to return. As the
Ranger pulled away, we were struck once more by the island’s pristine nature; from our vantage point, there was no sign that we—nor 13,000 years worth of thriving, industrious inhabitants—had ever set foot ashore. Sailing north towards the Queen Charlotte harbour, we reflected on what Walter called the ‘Haida way’; an understanding of equilibrium and a willingness to let nature take its course. We realized that behind us was one of few truly wild places remaining in the world, one that wouldn’t exist without the Haida Nation’s continued practice and defense of their ancestral beliefs.

Two weeks later, we found ourselves admiring The Raven and the First Men, a seminal
Bill Reid sculpture featured at the UBC Museum of Anthropology (MOA). We roamed the adjacent gallery of totem poles and wooden chests, taken from Haida villages and put on display in modern, climate-controlled rooms. We roamed the outdoor exhibit where several replica poles and two impressive longhouses stood at full scale. While it helped us to better

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The UBC Museum of Anthropology’s indoor exhibit. 

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The Raven and the First Men by Bill Reid depicting the birth of the Haida people

visualize what K’uuna and Tanu might have looked like, we couldn’t help but notice that they were staged on a man-made beach that was a poor imitation of its wild counterpart. However, we realized that while we were lucky enough to see the sites in person, it’s certainly not sustainable.

With the MOA drawing 150,000 visitors annually, we can only imagine what that foot traffic would do to K’uuna’s lightly trodden pathways. Though the exhibit is well-curated and an effective way for people to discover the richness of Haida culture, we left the museum wondering whether these artifacts were being deprived of their natural resting place.

As you read this, wind and rain are smoothing away the once distinct and beautiful carvings. Tree roots grow through the fallen poles, absorbing and recycling their nutrients. In as little as a decade, the carvings will be indistinguishable, and not long after, the poles will disappear entirely. Though the footprint of the early Haida people on the land may have faded, the ‘Haida way’ lives on—in Walter’s words of wisdom, in the continued carving and raising of totem poles, and in the evolution of the culture to balance modernity with tradition.

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Totem poles in Skedans, circa 1878

We were left with the impression that the people of K’uuna would have been content to see their poles return to the earth, so long as their traditions and values remained. We were moved by the pristine haven that is Haida Gwaii and left with a deep respect for the guardians of this majestic place and a determination to learn from their relationship with nature. Perhaps this is the legacy we should immortalize.

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The UBC Museum of Anthropology’s outdoor exhibit contrasted by Haida Houses

Emily Carr…Victoria’s free-spirited writer and painter

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“Don’t you love her shoes? asks a lady in a cozy hand-knitted bonnet. “But I think Emily might have suffered a little from bunions,” she says pointing to sturdy, laced loafers. Surveying the bronze statue, I agree, then gesture to a monkey perched on Emily Carr’s shoulder. “That will be Woo, her Javanese monkey,” Eloise tells me with a ring of affection.

We happen to have ambled up to the likeness of Emily Carr at precisely the same time. The warmth in my new friend’s voice and the twinkle in her eyes endear me to her immediately.

It seems apt that I meet Jack and Eloise on the corner of Government and Belleville Streets – a window on the soul of Victoria. The grand Fairmont Empress is Emily’s backdrop, kitty-corner from British Colombia’s Parliament buildings, next to the Royal BC Museum; all anchored by the harbour with its schooners, pleasure boats and float planes.

Victoria, the capital of BC, sits at the southern tip of Vancouver island on the Pacific Coast. A short sail from Vancouver, it is a city of glorious blooms – billowy cherries, plump magnolias, abundant daffodils and tulips, heavenly hyacyniths and pansies; a cascade of colour in the crisp April air.IMG_3393 (1)

“Do you know our Emily?” Eloise asks, almost maternally.

“Indeed I do, in fact today”, I tell the friendly couple, “I’m tracking Emily through the city.”

Emily Carr (1871 – 1945) is one of British Columbia’s most beloved figures – a painter, a writer, a free-spirited rebel. Emily proclaimed her profound love for the Canadian West and is best known for lush, haunting forest-scapes and powerful portrayals of totem poles. At heart, she was also a fearless traveller; the essence of her nature was to embrace the landscape and native culture at their source.

IMG_4686I tell Jack and Eloise that as a writer, not only do I love Emily’s words, but I admire her intrepid explorations to capture her favourite subjects. Once vital cultural entities in First Nation villages, Emily seemed prescient in knowing that totems would ‘disappear’ as the Colonial settlers pushed the Coastal First Nations away from their lands, stripping them of their deep-rooted culture.

“Off she’d journey,” I added, “on working steamers, small boats, even dugout canoes. With a dog in tow, she’d arrive on the shores of a First Nation village, taking it on faith that she’d find shelter.”

Emily Carr’s paintings created a lasting, brooding documentation of the proud sentinels that watched over those villages. She was respectful and deeply empathic, “It  must have hurt the Indians dreadfully, to have the things they had always believed trampled and torn from their hugging.” E.C.

Emily became friends with the people of the First Nations and was bestowed with a native name that she proudly proclaimed for the rest of her life…Klee Wyck…it means the ‘Laughing One’.

The iconic symbols of Canada’s First Nations stand stalwart and proud from our vantage point; contemporary carvings by descendants of this land’s first settlers. One totem is nestled by the harbour and another seems to guard the nearby British Colombia Parliament Building. I admire the colours, the symbolism of each carved raven, orca and thunderbird capturing tribal lore, evoking spirit and culture.

“The next time I paint with the locals I’m going off on a tangent tear. There is something bigger than fact: the underlying spirit, all it stands for, the mood, the vastness, the wildness, the Western breath of go-to-the-devil-if-you-don’t-like-it, the eternal spareness of it. Oh the West! I’m of it and I love it!” E.C.

It’s obvious that Jack and Eloise also have an appreciation for this island and this city. Like many retirees, they have chosen Victoria for the temperate climes, the ocean, the beauty, the quaint Victorian charm. With a sly grin, Eloise reminds her husband of sixty years that, “I’m not moving again dear.”

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I bid a fond farewell to Jack and Eloise. “Do go see Emily’s family home,” Eloise suggests as she takes my hand warmly.

“It’s on my list,” I promise, “but first I’ll duck into the Empress while I’m here.” “Oh yes dear you must. It’s been refurbished and the Victoria’s are lovely!”

A horse drawn carriage clops past, a London-inspired double-decker bus waits for tourists, while chimes reminiscent of ‘Big Ben’ pronounce the time.

 

The Victoria’s and Anthony

I spot the Victoria’s immediately. They weave history into art with a modern edge and are the perfect backdrop at The Empress’s Q Bar. Then again I muse, perhaps some modern versions of Emily Carr’s paintings might have been apropos.

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I’m distracted by a man’s voice at the bar. He’s weaving a tale of Victoria’s history to the bartender and I’m drawn to his narrative like a magnet. I practically pull out my Moleskin in anticipation as I slide onto the barstool next to him. “You’ve chosen the best seat in the house,’ Anthony smiles, offering his hand in welcome.

Born and raised in Victoria, Anthony declares, “I know every inch of this city and have a fierce love for this Empress Hotel.” Motioning towards the Crystal Ballroom, he fondly recalls this as the setting for his high school graduation and where most Victorians were treated by their parents to their first ‘legal’ drink.

With the Victoria’s as our backdrop, Anthony relates that life as an ‘island child’ was idyllic and a stint away in Eastern Canada from the age of six to ten was more than trying. “I was at peace when I came home again – this is where I belong, who I am.” His sentiments seem to echo Emily Carr’s.

Anthony looks outwards to Victoria’s inner harbour through aged stained glass set into tall window sashes. “I remember when there were no cruise ships, only steamships. I recall the Royal Visit in 1982, peeking into a port-hole of the Royal Yacht Britannia. You know why the Empress was built I’m sure”, he wonders out loud.


I do know that the Edwardian, chateau-style hotel was designed for Canadian Pacific Hotels and opened in 1908. Serving those who journeyed to Victoria by CP’s steamship line, it became a tourist destination from the mid 20’s. The impressive Rattenbury-designed edifice has played host to Royals, movie stars and the famous. “What of Emily Carr?” I ask.

I had read she was known to take tea, dine, attend lectures and concerts at the Empress. “A dull tea with a dull woman at the dull Empress. The pups were the only gay thing about it and the conservatory a joy of airy, fairy, gay colour, too exquisite and upstairs to describe in words, like colour stairways of joyousness leading out beyond earth things.” E.C.

We discuss that it wouldn’t be surprising for Emily to find the Victorian ritual of English Tea (still a major tourist draw at the Empress) too confining and pompous. We ponder the rebel side of Emily. To Victoria’s refined middle and upper-classes who melded into a city said to have been built as a replica of Britain, Emily was regarded as ‘quite crazy, eccentric and bizarre’. Eventually she would embrace the isolation, yet the loneliness never subsided.

After stints at Art Schools in the US and abroad, Emily thought nothing of smoking, wearing trousers and hand stitched clothes, riding cross-saddle, camping, and generally bucking the traditions of acceptable behaviour for someone born into a genteel English family.

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Emily Carr

“We didn’t learn much about Emily in school,” Anthony confides to me. “As a boy I knew her paintings were on stamps and that she once had a pet monkey. You kind of knew she had been an eccentric.”

I comment on the new, also delightfully eccentric murals and ask his opinion about the refurbishment. “Queen Victoria means a lot to me, like Emily Carr, my roots are English.”

Victoria was named in honour of the Queen in 1843, a few years after James Douglas was charged with establishing a trading fort for the Hudson’s Bay Company. The port city later became a supply base for miners, many from the US, en route to the gold fields along the Fraser River. Immigrants from the British Isles were plentiful, enticing families such as Anthony’s for its British ‘sensibilities’. I comment that perhaps it’s fitting that a statue of Queen Victoria towers just across the street – evidence not only of the past, but of Canada’s proud position today as a member of the Commonwealth. Along with the statues of Victoria and Emily, there are others along the harbour that tug at one’s emotions and attest to this harbour’s long, maritime history.

I can well imagine the countless tales that have been woven at this Empress bar throughout the years – the settlers, the travellers, the sailors and the gold miners. Or like today, an illuminating discussion during a delightful chance encounter. Yet it’s time to take my leave from the engaging Anthony and from the royal gaze of the Victoria’s. It’s time to visit the Carr family home.

 

The Carr Family Home

“Father bought ten aces of land, part of what was known as Beckley Farm. It was over James’ Bay and I have heard my mother tell how she cried at the lonesomeness of going to live in a forest….The house was large and well built of California redwood, the garden prim and tended.” E.C.

This ‘forest’ and the environs, only a mile out of the city in 1863, had a profound impact on Emily’s formative years. She was creative, a tomboy and prone to imagination as a child, a contrast to her ‘girlie’ sisters and her strict, autocratic father. Richard Carr was a successful merchant and had a soft spot for his youngest daughter. He had saved her first charcoal sketch of the family dog – perhaps the only recognition by a family member throughout her entire life, that she had any talent. Mr. Carr fired her artistic inclinations with stories of Native culture and the virgin forest he had encountered.

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Today the Carr home is flanked by spring flowers and signage with Emily’s evocative words. “Nothing, not even fairyland, could have been so lovely as our lily field. The wild lilies…did something to the back you your eyes…they were white, with gold in their hearts.” The home’s orchard, lily fields, farmyard and forays into nearby Beacon Hill Park and to the ocean, fuelled Emily’s love of nature. It would offer much needed solace when her mother died, and then her father. Emily was only seventeen.

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Kitwancool 1928

Escaping the stern ‘rule’ of an older sister to study at the California School of Design in San Fransisco, the nineteen year old embraced the freedom and her new outlets for expression, Yet she returned to the ‘big house’ in 1893, setting up her first studio in the barn’s hayloft and teaching art; hoarding her earnings in an old boot hanging from the rafters. A trip to Lake Cowichan, then one to Ucluelet, finds her sketching in the villages. It’s here she acquires the name Klee Wyck from the First Nation families with whom she bonds.

At the age of 28, Emily had saved enough to set out for further study in London. The hopeful beginnings turned to hardship, a spurned romance, a breakdown with 18 months in a sanatorium. Five and a half years later, she returned home via a stop in the Cariboo, further fuelling her love of nature and adventure; her streak of rebellion now firmly rooted. “No woman had ridden cross-saddle before in Victoria! Victoria was shocked. My family sighed…cross-saddle! Why everyone disapproved. Too bad, instead of England gentling me into an English Miss with nice ways, I was more me than ever, just pure me.”

Other acquired habits like smoking further alienated Emily from her family, conservative Victoria was aghast. Another studio was set up, political cartoons drawn for a local publication, a job offer in 1906 in Vancouver took her away from the English confines of Victoria. It seems there was a collective sigh of relief.

Today, the Emily Carr House has not yet opened for the season and so I can only circle the house. I gaze up to what was once young Emily’s bedroom, I notice an easel propped against a wall, I imagine how idyllic the setting must have been for a creative mind. And I play the next years of Emily’s often tumultuous life in my mind.

~ Teaches art in Vancouver. More sketching trips and a cruise to Alaska which confirms her commitment to record the ineluctable march of the aboriginal cultural demise.

~Studies art in France for a year or so. Returns to Vancouver, extensive sketching and painting trips throughout Vancouver Island and Queen Charlotte Islands.

~First exhibit and lecture on Totems in 1913. Muted response to the more than 200 pieces. Hopes of the Government buying her collection not realized. Feels isolated with no fellow artists to commune with.

~From 1913 to 1927, art is sidelined as Emily owns a boarding house and mostly abhors the role of ‘landlady’…the attic becomes her respite. She fires pottery, knits rugs and raises dogs. Her love for her menagerie of animals keeps loneliness at bay.

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Odds & Ends 1939

~Invited in 1927 to exhibit in the Canadian West Coast Art, Native and Modern Show in Ontario, she meets the famous Group of 7 painters, those capturing the beauty of Eastern Canada. Encouraged by Lawren Harris and accepted by this prestigious group, her life is changed. She bursts with renewed creativity and resolves to become The West’s foremost painter.

~Her most productive period ensues from 1928…Emily Carr is 57 years old. She begins a regular journal, extensive trips, rents cottages for work then buys Elephant, a simple trailer for situating herself to capture the forest, now her main focus.

~Suffers first heart attack in 1937. Groups stories written over an eleven year period. First stories are read on CBC in 1940 to resounding appreciation. Suffers another heart attack, first book Klee Wyck published, wins Governor General’s Award. Book of Small published in 1942, House of Sorts in 1944. Growing Pains, Pause, The Heart of  Peacock, Hundreds and Thousands, Fresh Seeing, all published posthumously.

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The Indian Church 1929

After years of rejection and doubt, of solitude and impoverishment, a woman I feel much admiration for, had found solace, acceptance…happiness. Emily Carr was a great talent, the West she loved so fiercely now celebrates her.

I find some of Emily Carr’s last words before she passed away in 1945. Finally, they ring with joy…

“Outstanding events! work and more work! I sat self contained with dogs, monkey and work- writing into the long dark evenings after painting-loving everything terrifically. In later years my work had some praise and some successes but the outstanding event to me was the doing which I am still at. Don’t pickle me away as done.” E.C.

A finely stacked woodpile, skating in the Canadian outdoors…welcoming the New Year

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“Birch is most definitely the cadillac of wood, kept us warm growing up,” Ian tells me, fondly recalling winters of his prairie youth. We and a dozen others are gathered around a crackling bonfire in British Columbia on New Year’s Eve day. Stacked in the fresh snow is a pile of wood …readied to keep the fire ablaze.

Despite a temperature of -12 Celsius, the late afternoon gathering is lively and it feels perfectly natural to socialize in the beautiful outdoors. Neighbours wander up with a drink and a ‘Happy New Year’ on their lips, many clutching a pair of skates.

For beyond the fresh air and the chance to greet friends, the other attraction is the open-air skating rink. A few meters from where we’re gathered, the glassy stretch of ice beckons as keenly as a deep-blue pool of water…if you’re a skater that is.

Skating on outdoor ice is a hallmark of Canadian winters, about as idyllic as it gets. Two of my sons are with us and they can’t get their skates on fast enough. Having played hockey in various countries we’ve called home – Oman, Dubai, Norway, the U.S. – the opportunity to strap on the ‘blades’ in the Canadian outdoors is part of their identity. But perhaps that is over-thinking it… it’s just unbridled joy.

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Snow shovels ready at the outdoor rink, near Kimberley BC

They glide and weave effortlessly over the frozen pond. They and longtime friends grab hockey sticks and shoot pucks at the net, shouting into the cold December air, Feels so great to be out here! For a longtime hockey mom, it is music to my ear-muffed ears on this last day of 2016.

We’ve delighted in seeing countless outdoor rinks this holiday season in the small towns in our area…Cranbrook, Fernie and Kimberley. This is what you do. It’s how many families spend time together, building traditions all the while. Perhaps the rink is the setting for a date or where you just ‘hang out’ and meet friends. Or maybe you play a game of shinny – pond hockey – with whoever happens to be around. It’s all of this and more; it’s part of being from the ‘great white north’. This is where the deep and abiding love of skating and hockey is born in the hearts of many Canadians.

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Skating in Fernie, BC

My own boys learned to skate on Grandpa’s pond. On visits home for Christmas the first question was usually, “How’s the ice Grandpa, can we skate?” If the answer was ‘yes’, out came the wide snow shovels. Back and forth they were pushed, clearing the snow for action…anticipation rising as each strip of ice revealed itself.

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A Sunday afternoon in Cranbrook, BC

Countless hours were spent with family on that frozen wonderland. The grind and rasp of metal blades on the uneven surface, the crack and thunk of a flexing ice sheet, the elated shouts of kids at play, the bark of dogs chasing the puck…the sounds of winter ingrained in our memories. And now for life, the guys can enjoy a day like today and feel at home on the ice.

With dusk approaching, more people arrive and I smile at a small girl on the bench at the edge of the ice. Her mother is lacing up her figure skates and she’s clearly excited. The ice is busy, yet the skaters will be mindful of a beginner; memories of learning how to skate stay with you. It’s tough. You stumble, you fall, you get back up over and over again until you get it. And then, like riding a bike, the sense of freedom and satisfaction it brings is thrilling.

Back at the bonfire, I continue the discussion of wood with Ian and our good friend Nolan.img_1740 The brothers grew up in Saskatchewan where a weighty stack of wood got you through the biting cold winters.

“Birch is ideal,” the two confirm, adding some science to their assertion. “It doesn’t spit, good energy density and it burns hot.”

I admit that I had ‘smuggled’ some ornamental birch logs into my shipment when we left Norway and on reflection, it had always burned well in our classic Norwegian fireplace.

Some treasured pieces of it now happen to be part of my decor in India, of all places. Perhaps like the wooden skis propped in our office, the birch reminds me of my roots. Of growing up in cold winters; in the snow, on a ski hill, on the ice and yes, often huddled cozily around a fireplace. But there’s far more to wood than meets the eye. “Did you know that the chopping and stacking of wood can be a bit of an obsession in Norway, even takes on an art form,” I offer as someone adds more pinewood to the bonfire.

Yes, apparently it’s common knowledge that wood will dry well if there’s enough space for a mouse to run hither and tither throughout the pile. And stacking that wood is not to be taken lightly. Different types of wood should be stacked accordingly and in Norway, besides the practical piles like a sun-wall pile, there’s a round stack, a closed square, a standing round stack or the v-shape pile. Who knew?

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There are also the sculptured woodpiles. I have learned that wood, with its complex hues, also offers an outlet for creativity that one might not expect. The end of a pice of oak is a deep brown. Pine and spruce radiate yellow tones with a little help from the sun, whereas cut ends of elm, aspen and maple display as muted whites. And apparently the rich alder is also a sought-after shade for stacking aficionados.

It seems there’s no end to woodsy creativity, One might ‘sculpt’ a massive fish or even a portrait of the king and queen. I recall that while we lived in Stavanger a retired engineer had created a woodpile portrait of Queen Sonja and King Harold V, in tribute of the king’s seventy-fifth birthday. This masterpiece had been preceded by a portrait of a composer and a likeness of the local mayor. How wonderful to find creativity in wood (and gain a bit of notoriety!)

Yet if it that all sounds a little mundane, there is something far more rousing about woodpiles. “Ok gentlemen,” I joke with my friends at the bonfire, “by any chance did your prospective wives happen to inspect your woodpile before they said yes?” There’s a reason I’m asking of course.

In the late nineteenth century in the American state of Maine, it is reported that young women might determine the suitability of a husband by the condition of his woodpile. Call it a folksy tradition or not, but the general rule was thus:

img_3066Upright and solid pile: the same could be said of the man.

Low pile: a good cautious man but could be shy or weak.

Unusual shape: freethinking and maybe an open spirit but construction could be weak.

Not much wood: be ready for a life from hand to mouth.

Unfinished pile, some logs here and there: unstable, lazy, maybe prone to drink?

Old and new wood together: be suspicious, might be some stolen wood there.

No woodpile: forget it, there must be more suitable candidates!

I think of the wood pile at the back of our mountain home. No it surely isn’t perfect, but the wood has been enthusiastically chopped. At our house you never have to ask twice to have firewood, our guys relish the opportunity to channel their inner woodsman. There’s no question they find a certain satisfaction in the process.

It is said that chopping your own wood is therapeutic and contemplative, even atavistic. A chance to wield an axe, use brute power – a gratifying correlation between effort and output.

Back in 1854 in his book Walden, Henry Thoreau extolled the virtues of not only chopping wood but living a simple life in natural surroundings. It was Thoreau who observed that wood warms twice over, once when you chop it and again when you burn it.

A seemingly simple observation that just happens to be inscribed on a small cushion in our home. Filled with pine needles, it evokes the spirit of the outdoors and nature’s simple pleasures.

I’m curious to see how our neighbourhood measures up in the wood stacking department. I notice finely-stacked woodpiles and logs waiting to be split and chopped, all protected by snow-clad trees and cabin eaves. This is the kind of place where snowboards, skis, snowshoes and sleds lean against houses, fond embrace of the mountain lifestyle. It’s where snow piles high, gathering on roofs and resting on tamarack, pine and birch. Indeed, the reminders are everywhere…embrace nature’s beauty.

We said our farewells, hung up the snowshoes and covered our not-so finely stacked woodpile. Now from our other home in India, restored to face the challenges and the new opportunities the year will bring, I wish you all a joyful and fulfilled New Year. I hope you’ll revel in the beauty of nature…wherever you may be…Terry Anne

A Snowy Winter Collection…an antique fur & the new year that awaits

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‘Doll-like’ buildings in Lubeck, Germany

My winter collection isn’t one of lavish coats and fur-lined boots that protect from the frozen air; it’s more a collection of memories. ‘Doll-like’ European buildings dusted with powder-fine snow, simple wreaths bidding welcome to candle-lit homes, snowshoeing through fairy-tale pines.

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Wreaths bidding welcome

It’s usual for me to be home this time of year, in the mountains of British Columbia. I’m mindful that many of my favourite places, my most cherished memories, are of cold countries where a chilled climate quickens the pulse and deepens the senses. Even as the dream-like scenery fills me with wonderment and exhilaration, I yield to the serenity of wintery landscapes.

In a month or so we depart for warmer climes, to our next overseas posting. With endearing memories of the holiday season, these first weeks in January find me calm and peaceful as I’m surrounded by feathery snow, bluebird skies and stately stands of larch and pines.

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Old Stavanger, resplendent after a snowfall

At the turning of the year, WordPress has reminded me of the year passed, of the one-hundred and some countries where my blog was read and of those places that I wandered to in 2015; Kazakhstan, Spain, Malta, Thailand, Turkey, Azerbaijan and Malaysia. Most of those destinations are in fact warmer climates, yet Kazakhstan and Canada indulged my penchant for snow.

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An antique fur to warm

In Kazakhstan my recycled fur coat from the ’50’s was donned once or twice, melding with the local fashion to combat deep-freeze temperatures. The coat embraced me as we lingered alongside frozen inlets of the Caspian and trudged through snow-hushed Soviet-style streets. Ironically, that coat is packed in a shipment awaiting the next posting, one in which fur will be as useless as cozy mittens and hefty snow shovels.

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Powder-fine snow in Stavanger, Norway

I find a photo of myself snug in the antique fur in another country that I associate with glorious winter days…Norway.

Old Stavanger was resplendent after a snowfall, its wooden buildings a serene backdrop for shades of ethereal whites, contrasted with sprigs of heather and fresh pine on door stoops.

And of that old Winnipeg fur, ideally it should be here in Canada as I enjoy these last winter days before we transition yet again. Instead, I’m gathering my wardrobe of summery clothes to be shipped along with the things we need to build a new nest; collectibles, furniture and books. All that is important…except for our three sons. At this stage in our lives we live in different countries for much of the year; we’re proud of them and supportive, we’ll miss them dearly.

Our family has been happily ensconced under one roof over the holiday season, the first occasion since this time last year. We’ve seen each other throughout the year at various times and places, but to all gather around our table to dine and linger over conversation that we’ve waited a year to enjoy…well, it’s very cherished.

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Tranquility in British Columbia

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Fairy-tale pines

The season has seen us skiing and snowshoeing, playing games, making merry…being a family. We’ve regaled each other with stories and shared plans for the upcoming year. For me the next four months will be busy and challenging; a mentoring role in Amsterdam at the FIGT Conference and shortly thereafter, a trip to Malaysia to collaborate on a book project.

And not forgetting, the move in February to the ninth country that we will call ‘home’. So it seems my new year is to be filled with inspiring ventures and challenges, and most certainly some interesting travels. I wish my readers near and far, a fulfilling year in all the ways you wish yours to be.

But for now, for a few more precious weeks, amidst the planning and preparations, visas and packing, I’ll embrace the treasure that is winter. My crackling fire will warm me and these comforting walls that have welcomed us safely home, will give strength to embrace the endeavours ahead.

But I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the destination of the impending move…it’s Bangalore. It’s India!

 

I’ll most certainly keep you posted,

Warm regards and a very fulfilling New Year, Terry Anne

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Ktunaxa people, Gordie’s story…part two

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The former St. Eugene Mission School on an autumn day

This is a continuation from part one

“My grandmother brought me to the school, it was 1957. We pulled up in a horse and buggy, my brother and sister were already here which helped a little.”

I’m standing with Gordie at the bottom of the steps that lead to the imposing door of the St. Eugene Mission, once a Residential School. It is easy to imagine the foreboding, the instinctive fear that young Native children like Gordie felt when they entered the school for their first ten month term.

“I was frightened and remember the feeling of resentment towards my grandma. She had helped raise me. It wasn’t until later that I realized she didn’t have a choice but to let me go.”

Gordie is tall and lean, his long greying hair topped by a baseball cap. It’s the tradition of many First Nations to keep their hair long, it’s an extension of their spiritual self.

Having offered to give me a tour and talk about his time at the school, Gordie greets me warmly this cool autumn morning. He’s just finished his shift as the night-time superintendent of the St Eugene Mission Resort. As a student, Gordie lived and breathed this school, his memories are deeply etched. He now walks through it with some measure of peace and acceptance.

From 1912 to 1970, more than 5000 First Nation children were removed from their families to comply with the government assimilation program and brought to this school, one of eighty former schools across Canada. However, its perfect postcard setting in the interior of British Columbia is deceptive.

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Refurbished and renewed

“I suppose I was lucky, I was dropped off by a family member. Some kids were left here by Indian Agents, whisked away before their families even knew they were gone.”

Gordie explains the cruel truth that Agents were often paid to ‘round up’ ‘Indian’ children, especially in remote areas. The children were sometimes taken when they ran to a plane that had landed, then spirited away with the promise of a ‘ride’.

“They were given a number, with no consideration of their name, then placed in a Residential School.”

Gordie will tell you that this was by no means the worst of the Residential Schools. The entrance of the former St . Eugene Mission School is now a hotel lobby. It has a welcoming and dignified atmosphere, vastly different than it once was. Solid in their longevity, the red brick walls are invisibly marred with strife and untold hurts. People like Gordie are now willing to tell their story.

“Our hair was chopped off, and from that moment the school did its best to eradicate our language and culture. This is where you waited to be taken away by the nuns to the dormitories.”

‘Indian Hall’, I believe Gordie called it as we begin a tour and conversation that lasts five hours, but felt like just a few. He points to a black and white photo near the front desk. The image shows a group of older girls gathered in front of the school, smiling proudly astride their horses.

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Gordie Sebastian with a plaque that pays tribute to his role in the refurbishment of St. Eugene Mission

“Do you know anything about horses?” Gordie asks, pointing to their bridles and saddles. “Does this look like we were poor or wanting? No we had a culture, a life, it was taken away.”

I’m instinctively drawn to the collection of photos in the nearby corridor that I had been so taken with the previous day. Gordie reveals parts of his story through them, bringing the images to life with his narrative.

A seemingly typical school is portrayed; a hockey team, the school band, a choir, children in uniforms seated at their desks.

“It looks like you were involved in a lot of activities?”

“We were. Saturday was hockey, we also had a baseball field,” Gordie tells me.

“Are you in any of these?” I ask as my finger scans over children positioned in front of the school steps. Standing behind the children are a number of priests and nuns, some dressed in black habits, others in white.

“No I usually had some kind of injury when it was time for photos. One time I had a bruise on my eye from a hockey puck so couldn’t be in the photo. It might have looked like I had been hit by one of the staff…”

Gordie is referring to the now well-documented mental, physical and sexual abuse, even death, that students suffered at the hands of the priests and nuns who came from afar to work in these schools.

“I didn’t have as many issues as some. I was from one of the more respected Native families so was usually safe from the abuse of the staff and other students. My dad held some sway.”

Gordie Sebastian comes from a long line of prominent Ktunaxa who owned and bred horses. He points to a photo of a group of men, four sit on their horses. One of them wears a blanket, tucked-in at the waist.

“That’s my great-grandfather, Sabas, Joseph Sebastian. He was a medicine man.”

A medicine man was a highly respected member of an Indian tribe. They were healers or ‘shaman’ who did not believe in bloodshed.

Gordie explains that Sabas and the tribal head at the time, Chief Isadore, believed that no man had the right to erect fences on the Ktunaxa land. This held fast until European and Canadian settlers usurped their ancestral land following the signing of Treaty 7 in 1887. This treaty confined the First Nations peoples to Reserves, where many of the Ktunaxa stil live today.

Gordie gestures to the photo of St. Eugene Mission, the once cluster of tipis and houses around the church where his forebears would have gathered.

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Red brick walls

He shows me a detail that had escaped me. A house stands with the top of a tipi sticking out from its roof. Like most First Nations, the Ktunaxa people didn’t adapt well to the confines of a house.

“That’s Indian Pete’s house, set his tipi up in the middle of it.”

In another photo dated 1887, a man dressed in baggy trousers and a waist coat stands in front of the St. Eugene Church. He smiles widely, beside him is a priest. They seem to know each other.

“That’s Father Coccola and Indian Pete. They paid to have the church built. In fact Indian Pete paid our way into heaven,” Gordie says with a  chuckle.

Gordie is open and candid as he explains the more serious and devastating impact the Residential Schools have had on generations of First Nations people.

“But I’ve also been told by some people that these were the best of days, away from poverty and their alcoholic parents on the Reserves.” Gordie explains that many parents weren’t well adapted to parenting as they only saw their children during the two-month summer break and perhaps for a few hours once every three weeks. Also many of them had been students themselves; their own wounds ever present.

“My father was a student here, he never told me but I think he had been sexually abused. He always checked us for signs.” Gordie says quietly.

We talk about the Priests and the Nuns whose frequent indifference to their students’ humanity exacted so much pain.

“Some of the priests weren’t that bad, but the nuns were battle-axes. Some of them could teach well enough but they had little or no compassion. Through their actions we were taught hate. It was drilled into our heads that we were useless…little more than savages.”

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The healing power of the tipi

Perhaps because of Gordie’s influential family, he reports having pushed the envelope a little further than other students. By the time he was a young teenager, he railed against his situation.

“One time I argued with a nun over a basic fact that she was teaching,” Gordie confided. “Now you know that St. Eugene Mission sits between two mountain ranges, the Rockies and the Purcells. Well she had the two ranges mixed up and I told her so. We argued back and forth, I wasn’t backing down. All of a sudden she hit me and I pushed back.”

Gordie was made to sit in the Priests’ office for the day as punishment. Once he told his side of the story, he wasn’t reprimanded further.

“Did she teach the correct mountain ranges after that,” I ask.

“Oh no, she kept telling us the wrong thing,” he says, making light of the story all these years later.

But not all punishment was that easy. Male students who ran away from the school were often found again by the Indian Agents and returned to the school. For the next two weeks they were forced to dress as girls. As shaming as this would have been, it pales into comparison of other punishments that Gordie leaves untold.

I’m particularly haunted by his accounts of the tuberculosis outbreaks. Nodding to a photo of a clearly ill student, his head bandaged, he precedes to tell me of the infectious conditions that existed in the school.

“That student had TB, he shouldn’t have been with other students,” Gordie says matter-of-factly. The rate of deaths in the schools from influenza and TB far exceeded that of elsewhere in Canada.

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The St. Eugene Mission Resort and Golf Course

Unlike many Residential Schools, only one death occurred here.

“This is her,” Gordie says pointing to a young girl. “She died when snow fell onto her from the roof. It’s good that her relatives have been here. Her name was Anette.”

Late in the interview, Gordie and I have coffee in the former chapel. It’s being readied for a function and we sit at a long table that will soon be set with linen and fine china. I’m told that healing occurs at St. Eugene on a regular basis. As painful as it is, many former students and their families return to confront the hurts of the past.

“The tipi outside is there for a reason. Even as the school was being re-purposed, it was provided for prayers and counselling.”

We glance out towards the tall white canvas. I learn that the poles of a tipi represent the different spiritualities of all people, yet they are bound together as one.

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A painting of Elder Mary Paul

“Facing the past is difficult, but it brings peace. Just as Elder Mary Paul gave us the permission to do so.”

Gordie had pointed out the painting of Elder Paul as we entered the lobby. It is with her blessing that the re-construction of this building was undertaken.

We make our way upstairs to the ‘inner sanctuary’ of the school. Now mostly hotel rooms, Gordie points out the areas which were once dormitories, kitchens and mess halls. The rooms of the nuns and priests were close by.

My sense of this building’s history is suddenly very real. I’m shown the place where Gordie’s bed had stood. We look toward the window and beyond, where the road lies.

“At least I was able to look out of the window and see my father or grandfather pass on the road once in a while. Many kids were far, far from home.”

I’m shown where a young boy stood on a precarious ledge while attempting to run away. I see the burn marks from two arson attempts on the school. I become emotional as I contemplate the daunting stairs that girls as young as four had to negotiate in the middle of the night to go to the washroom. I feel their loneliness, the longing for their home, the yearning for a mother’s touch.

“There are 68 stairs,” Gordie tells me. “I should know, it was my job to sweep and scrub them.”

He tells me it was here that a young student was kicked down the stairs by a priest, tumbling helplessly to the bottom. Thankfully he lived.

a-first-nation-partnership-success-story-8-638“One of the workers saw it happen and pinned the priest up against the wall by the throat. He warned him never to hurt a student again,” Gordie recounts. “The next day we noticed that all of the straps had been removed from the classrooms.”

As the students reached their mid teens, I imagine control must have become more difficult. By the time Gordie is this age, one of the ‘Fathers’ uses government money to fund a swimming pool and provide horses for the students. Gordie takes on the role of the ‘horse guy.’

“Finally on Sunday afternoons we were allowed to leave the school premises and ride free on our land.”

I agree with Gordie how important that must have been; that sense of independence and freedom. This also evolved naturally as the older students were sent to a local school to complete their education.

“It didn’t get much better for us. We weren’t Native anymore and we weren’t ‘white’, so we didn’t fit in. We were ‘apples’…white on the inside but red on the outside.”

Gordie was eventually asked to leave his new school over an incident that he didn’t explain. When his father found out, he was also told to leave the house. He was seventeen and on his own. Gordie went north to work in the logging industry.

I don’t hear the entire story of the years between then and now. But I know a number of family members passed away due to alcohol abuse. And I know Gordie is raising the young daughter of a relative who still battles with the trauma of Residential School.

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Solace and Peace

I also know that Gordie is one of the good guys. Not only is he helping to heal his own family, but also many of those who walk through the doors of St. Eugene Mission. They seek solace and peace from the past.

I admire Gordie greatly.

An autumn of colour, a discovery of the Ktunaxa people…part one

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“Dappled with crimson, copper and golden leaves”

There are times when a story travels along an unexpected path, bringing you to a place you were hesitant, yet curious to venture into. Once enveloped and drawn into its emotion, you know you must share it.

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Fall, against a blue metal roof

I set out with the intention of writing something less significant than the story that unfolded. I simply wanted to convey the splendour of autumn in Kimberley and the East Kootenays.

This broad valley, book-ended by the Purcell mountains and the Rockies, is ablaze with colour. Nature has dappled crimson, copper and golden leaves onto a backdrop of stately pines and tall firs…a vast Monet canvas, breathtaking in its scale. Evening skies parade spectacular vistas as alpenglow brushes lavender and indigo over jagged peaks. Each dusk comes just that little bit earlier as autumn settles in and winter looms.

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Hues of autumn

It’s unusual that I’m here to appreciate this season. This time last year I had just joined my husband in Kazakhstan and recall yearning for the hues and trappings of autumn.

It’s now before me; a riot of nature, a time of harvest and impending hibernation. I marvel at the changes in our yard/garden where deep ruby leaves cling to barbed branches, nature’s natural deer proofing. Delicate red maple leaves flutter onto the lawn, each one cookie-cutter perfect. I see the familiar doe grazing nearby. Her two fauns have grown through the summer, their white Bambi-like patches now replaced by a thick coat that will warm them through the first winter.

A trail of delicate leaves

A trail of delicate leaves

And so I’ve revelled in these tranquil days…treasuring time with friends and family, savouring walks through fallen leaves, climbing the ski hill to be awed and inspired. An early dusting of snow on the mountains hints at nature’s march of the seasons.

In the spirit of autumn, I sign up for a canning workshop. We chop plump tomatoes, garlic, onions and luscious peppers. Large steaming canning pots transform the colourful chunks into flavourful homemade salsa. We work together to sieve the recipe into tiny mason jars, dunking them back into boiling water to preserve.

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Plump tomatoes and luscious peppers

Mason jars of prized preserves

Throughout the evening we laugh and learn with new people. I meet Dirk from Wildsight. He and his colleagues work within the community to protect regional ecology and promote sustainable lifestyles. Organizing grass-root events and workshops along with the Kimberley Farmer’s Market, Wildsight champions many issues that locals are passionate about.

As we leave the workshop with our prized preserves, Dirk implores us to use the Open Gate Garden, a communal vegetable patch.

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Kimberley Open Gate Garden

“You don’t have to work in it, but there’s still vegetables to be had,” he says encouragingly. Taking him on his word, the next day I fill a small basket of tasty sharp arugula and leafy kale. I chide myself that I hadn’t known about the garden throughout the summer but resolve to do some weeding here next summer. A meagre contribution for the opportunity to pick fresh produce at will. Vegetable gardens in Kimberley are typically fenced from the groups of deer that roam and help themselves to weeds, flowers and those elusive veggies.

The mingling of reds

The mingling of reds

Colours beckon at every turn. Metal roofs of reds, greens and blues cap many buildings in Kimberley; vivid backdrops for the changing foliage. More importantly metal sheeting is practical, helping shed the thick blankets of winter snow…to be honest the odd spring or autumn snowfall as well!

“Vivid backdrops for the changing foliage”

This technique of roofing, adapted in Quebec in the late 18th century, was referred to as ‘metal roofing Canadian style.’ Wonderfully they suit this mountain town. Actually Kimberley is a small city, competing with a few others as the city with the highest elevation in Canada.

On one of those rare Sundays that I’m alone, I drive a short while and take a walk on a warm, cloudless afternoon. With my tinkling bear bell and pepper-spray ready at my hip, I climb a butte, an almost conical hill rising from the valley floor. It’s a walk that invites reflection…it overlooks the traditional land of the Ktunaxa, the Kootenay.

I gaze out over barbed wire and faded green fence posts, out to distant horses grazing in tawny fields. The majestic Rocky Mountains rise above this ancestral home of the Ktunaxa. I’ve tramped through here before but today I linger, conjuring an image of a time when horses roamed free and tipis dotted the landscape.

Looking out the land of the Ktunaxa

Gazing out to the land of the Ktunaxa

A mere 130 years ago, this land was all theirs. They were not nomadic people ‘just passing through’. They had hunted, fished and gathered in this territory for more than 10,000 years. The Ktunaxa lived a spiritual life, in complete rhythm with the land. Obtaining all their food, medicine, clothing and shelter from nature, their reverence for this land was rooted in their culture. Then it all changed…abruptly.

A few days later, I find myself on their reserve, ostensibly to take a few photos. Or was it with the hope that I’d learn something, draw someone into conversation, make a connection?

St. Eugene Mission Church

St. Eugene Mission Church

I meet Dorothy Alpine.

I drive into the ‘new’ school yard of the Ktunaxa. The playground is alive with chatter. The school is attractive with its basic architecture, standing in the shadow of St. Eugene Mission Church. I take photos of the church and its fading white facade. Its precarious yet enduring steeple and crosses, all set against an impossibly blue sky. Built in 1897, it seems out of place on this patch of open prairie, encircled by low rolling hills that merge into the mountains beyond.

I soon chat with a lady enjoying the afternoon sun and casually ask about the history of the church. I broach that other subject; the old school, the former ‘Indian Residential School’ across the road.

“You’re in luck!” she tells me. “There’s Dorothy driving up, she’s the one you should speak to.”

I’m introduced and Dorothy graciously invites me into the school. As the Traditional Knowledge and Culture Instructor for this tribe of the Ktunaxa, the St. Mary’s band, she is committed to preserving the history and culture of her people. She is petite with a warm smile and kind eyes.

A steadfast steeple and crosses

steeple and crosses

“This was all the St. Eugene Mission,” Dorothy says, the sweep of her hand indicating not only the church, but also encompassing the cluster of wooden houses and tipis that surrounded it at the end of the 19th century.

“Right here was the meeting place of our people, the tribes of the Ktunaxa whose land stretched to the areas of Creston, Fairmont, Windermere and into Alberta, Montana, Washington and Idaho.” I would later read it was a vast 70,000 square kilometres of land; the size of Scotland.

Dorothy takes the time to write the names of the other ‘bands’ in the Ktunaxa language. Zaq’am she writes for St. Eugene Village.

Dorothy Alpine, framed by a colourful rendition of the 'new' school

Dorothy Alpine, with a colourful painting of the ‘new’ school

“Back in my grandfather’s time, about 1884, there was already a one room school that the missionaries had set up. Eventually Father Coccola was put in charge here.”

Father Nicolas Coccola was French and ventured to the ‘wilds’ of Western Canada in 1881. He would ultimately spend 63 years as a missionary, working with eight different First Nation Tribes. Tasked with the charge of St. Eugene Mission in 1887, Father Coccola also taught, provided medical attention and built houses. He had the help of the Sisters of Providence.

“They did a lot of good,” Dorothy says, “but we didn’t adapt well to houses. Our houses were mostly tipis, we had the first mobile homes after all,” she quips with a chuckle.

“Is it true that Father Coccola built the St. Eugene church, I hear most of it was transported from Italy?”

“Yes that’s true but it wasn’t just him, there was Indian Pete as well.”

I learn that soon after Coccola arrived in the area he staked a claim with a partner, Pierre Cronin, or Indian Pete as he was known. They had discovered valuable ore. Before long the St. Eugene mine yielded a good return, allowing both men to contribute to the the building of St. Eugene Mission Church.

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Explaining the creation story of the Ktunaxa

Dorothy explains that despite the Ktunaxa’s creation story, they believe that different beliefs are all under one God. Going to church was therefore a continuation of their spiritual experience to some extent and most importantly, a meeting place.

The Government and the arrival of European settlers had not only stripped the First Nations of vast amounts of land (which led to Indian Reserves) but also of their right to hold traditional gatherings and ceremonies, such as the potlatch. Thus for many of the Ktunaxa, the church was very much a compromise for what they had lost.

The Mission grew into a self-supporting community with the first flour mill in the region, a school and hospital. Yet I know that things changed drastically in 1912; the year that St. Eugene Mission School was built.

Residential schools were established by the government with the intent of ‘taking the Indian out of the child’ and assimilation to the ‘white man’s culture’. The St. Eugene Mission was the first comprehensive ‘Industrial and Residential’ school to be built in the Canadian West.

It’s a striking Spanish-Colonial style building that rises abruptly out of the prairie, incongruous even in its stately beauty. I’m well aware that the walls of these former Residential schools hold stories that are difficult to comprehend.

“Dorothy did you go to the school?”

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St. Eugene Mission area in the late 1800’s

“Oh yes and my two sisters as well, we had no choice. Our parents would have gone to jail if we hadn’t.”

I learn that Federal law dictated that all First Nation children were to attend Residential schools; to be assimilated and stripped of their language, culture, even their families.

But Dorothy relates mostly good stories of learning the basics and valuable skills.

“Some of the nuns were better teachers than others, I remember singing away most of grade 5, didn’t learn much that year.”

When I ask how often she was allowed to see her parents, Dorothy tells me that it was only the third Sunday of each month, and two months in the summer. She doesn’t dwell on it and brings the conversation back to the present-day.

“Things are getting better. Our children are learning but also exposed to their own language and culture again. We hold pow wows every summer, we’re trying to move forward.”

After expressing my thanks and taking leave, the storied building across the road beckons to me. It didn’t close until 1970 when the government changed their policy. A plan to turn it into a facility for psychiatric care faltered. Stripped of its original fixtures and artifacts, it lay abandoned for more than twenty years; a constant reminder for the Ktunaxa people of that dark period.

Eventually the Ktunaxa, the Samson Cree Nation and Chippewa’s of Rama First Nations formed a partnership. Since the early 2000’s, the transformed building has welcomed people far and wide as the St. Eugene Mission Resort, Golf Course and Casino.

It’s a success story of healing, through rebuilding. By sheer determination and tenacity, an old Indian Residential School has become a powerful economic engine, but not before families and former students were invited back to confront and lay the ghosts of the past.

Dorothy had made this very clear. “Our beloved elder Mary Paul gave us the strength to go forward.” In 1984, Elder Paul had declared, “Since it was within St. Eugene Mission School that the culture of the Kootenay Indian was taken away, it should be within that building that it is returned.”

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The St. Eugene Mission with Fisher Peak rising in its shadow

It’s late afternoon by now and I walk almost reverently through the Resort. The walls of the former school have been stripped down to the original reddish brick and they do seem to talk. Many beautifully framed black and white photos from the school days are arranged along the solid walls; I have a thousand questions. I sit in the cozy Fisher Peak lounge, the Peak itself framed brilliantly through the tall paned windows.

I ask the waitress if she knew what this room had been in the school.

“If you want to know more, you should speak to Gordie, our night watchman. His father came here, as did he. He knows pretty much everything.”

At that point, I want the full story to unfold full circle. Around me people are dining and enjoying a drink, staff members both First Nations and non, work side by side. Great strides have been made.

I leave my number, hopeful, but not fully expecting a call. My phone rings at 7:15 the next morning.

It’s Gordie. “I just got off work and was given your number. I hear you want to come for a tour and talk.”

I arrive at 10 that morning, notebook in hand…I leave at 3 in the afternoon.

To be continued….

Alpenglow on the Rockies

Alpenglow on the Rockies

A bicycle built for two and a Dutch fiets…exploring on two wheels

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Bikes and canals in Amsterdam

I’m the proud, new owner of a tandem bike, a bicycle built for two. It’s old, a classic Canadian made CCM and I can assure you that it’s rather cumbersome to ride. Yet somehow it evokes the romance of cycling experiences enjoyed around the world. Bikes have been our conveyance of choice in many places, affording glimpses into varied, everyday cultures that could not have been replicated by car, train, or even on foot.

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Options for transporting on a Dutch bike

We’re in Canada for a number of months awaiting our next overseas posting and I’m sure we’ll master the tandem. Yet in our mountain city of Kimberley, BC, most townspeople either own a mountain or road bike. Cycling is a way of life here and like most locals, I took to biking on the wooded trails this summer. I enjoyed it, yet admit that my active imagination was preoccupied with the thought of bears, moose or deer crossing my path. Admittedly, part of me is more at home cycling in urban settings. I love the vibe of a bustling city; even better if you can discover it on a bike.

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Artful in Denmark

On a recent trip to Amsterdam I wanted to get to the root of cycling; how does a society embrace it so completely as a mode of transportation? It’s common knowledge that bikes have evolved into the daily fabric of Dutch life. The Netherlands has one of the most efficient cycling infrastructures in the world. Many cities enjoy similar accommodations for cyclists; Copenhagen, Stockholm and Montreal for example, but the Dutch have truly mastered it. Almost 70 % of all journeys are made on a bike, or as we say in Dutch, a fiets.

I fondly remember taking to my fiets daily when we lived in Holland. Through the cobbled streets of Oudewater I cycled, my first-born strapped into a seat slung from my handle bars. A wicker basket attached at the back, ready to carry home the daily shopping. No helmet, even on my little guy, and yes the thought of it now alarms me. It seems I became complacent to the obvious perils or simply, I adopted the Dutch culture.

Bike stories from previous generations in Holland abound in my family. During war time, my grandparents improvised using garden hoses as tires when none were available. My mother and grandmother had a narrow escape when mercifully they hesitated to lean their bikes at a neighbour’s farmyard, then saw from a distance the building destroyed by a bomb a short time later. But there are also fond memories; three generations of us cycling across the border to Germany, evenings out in Amsterdam then cycling back to family along moon-lit canals, absorbed into the pulse of the city.

“Build paths and they’ll be used”

I visited the Amsterdam Museum and discovered that the bike culture is not simply happenstance. Of course the flat landscape has long been ideal for biking, but by the 1960’s new found wealth and progress came in the form of increased car ownership which marginalized cyclists. Quaint town squares were transformed into parking lots. Historic buildings were demolished to widen roads for the burgeoning car culture. Deaths from car accident deaths increased alarming; thousands in 1971 alone, tragically 400 of them were children. This along with the 1973 oil embargo prompted the ever-pragmatic Dutch to protest, ‘stop the slaughter of our children and end the car culture.’

The Government responded and promoted cycling as a mode of transportation; bike paths, junction lights and bike parks were built.

“Build paths,” said one official, “and they’ll be used.” As the Dutch rationalize, “Is biking not the fastest, cheapest, healthiest way to get around? Why would one not take to two wheels when given the opportunity?”

A 'child carrier' in Copenhagen

A type of child carrier in Christiania, Denmark

In fact today, there are more bikes than people in Amsterdam. About 800,000 of them, and as 84% of people have more than one bike, it’s fair to say the city is a ‘sea of bikes’. I still bemoan the loss of my beloved Dutch fiets that transported me along many charming streets. It had been stored in Amsterdam in my great-aunt’s shed but was eventually given away. How I wish it was in my garage today, at home with our seemingly endless array of bikes; if only for posterity.

On my fiets with a great-aunt in Amsterdam

On my fiets with my great-aunt in Amsterdam

Those solid Dutch bikes are ‘people-movers’ as they’re pedalled with one, two, three, even four children at a time. Riding in any Dutch city during rush hour is a sensory experience. It’s terrifically busy, a constant flow of solo commuters as well as parents transporting their youngsters as they chat about their day. Sitting on the bike or in a cargo box (a bakfiets) the weather is of little consequenceAfter all, there are rain/cold weather covers which help during inclement weather. Especially when the family dog, the daily groceries or a case of Heineken is stuffed along-side the kids!

Additions such as bakfiets are extremely functional but would have been unimaginable when two-wheeled machines first emerged in 1817. The invention is credited to Baron Karl von Drais from Germany. Drais invented the ‘running machine’, called a draisine. It was human-propelled and with no pedals, it was more walked than ridden. Hence it’s nickname of hobby-horse.

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A typical sight in Sweden

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A vintage penny-farthing

Eventually came the bone shaker, then the oddly shaped penny-farthing with a large front wheel and much smaller rear wheel. Rubber tires replaced steel-lined wood and in the 1890’s the safety bike evolved. It was the first machine to be called a bicycle; similar to the design we’re familiar with now.

Many variants of the bicycle have evolved; to road and touring, mountain bikes, unicycles, rickshaws and back to fixed-gear bikes. ‘Fixes’ are single speed and use back brakes, stripped back down to the basics. The zest for simplicity has created a new subculture of riding ‘fixies’ in urban settings.

I came across such a group in Montreal, long a city of cyclists. They posed willingly for my camera but it wasn’t until later that I discovered they were sporting ‘fixies’. Chatting with a young man at a cafe in Calgary, he told me that he was studying in Montreal. I mentioned my blog and showed him my photos. “Ah, they’ll be on ‘fixies’ for sure,” He explained the new subculture that these riders have created with this retro trend; the old will be made new again it seems.

'Fixies' in Montreal

‘Fixies’ in Montreal

For many of us who grew up in Canada, our bike experiences started with a trike, graduating to a set of rattly training-wheels, then onto a ‘banana seat’, and finally the thrill (in my day) of a 10-speed. We cycled endlessly. We got ourselves to school, around town and to our friend’s homes on our bikes. Whose front lawns didn’t have bikes splayed on them when friends came over?  We would also jump on our 10-speeds after dinner, eager to see what was ‘going on’. “Be home by dark,” our mothers would holler as we sped off.

Once you become a parent yourself, teaching your child to ride a bike is a rite of passage for you, every bit as it is for them. I recall the joy as my children balanced their bikes for the first time as I reluctantly let go. Running nervously behind them and anticipating the fall I’d exclaim, “You’ve done it! Don’t forget your brakes!”

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Our youngest, left, and friends out for a pedal

Even today when my grown ‘kids’ hop on a bike, I find it heart-warming. Perhaps it evokes memories of those carefree childhood years, yet I believe there’s more to it than that.

Riding a bike allows us an elemental, exhilarating connection with the world. No hard shell around us, no peering through a window, we are at one with our surroundings; and what surroundings we’ve been fortunate to have explored.

I leaf through my journal from our six month backpacking trip in ’89. I find enticing cycling entries.

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We cycled to the non-tourist view

Agra, India, February…We chose the non-tourist view of the Taj Mahal today. With rented bikes we cycled through a small village along a train track to the nearly dried Yamuna River. There we beheld the most wondrous sight, the Taj Mahal to the south, the Agra Fort to the west. We were transfixed, not able to pull ourselves away from the view. At twilight the moon rose creating an ethereal mistiness that mingled with the Taj; regal and impossibly beautiful. We finally had to pry ourselves away to return our bikes, pedalling home with the moon guiding our way.

 

Kathmandu, Nepal, April…We managed to find bikes to rent and cycled from Kathmandu to Bhaktapur. The Nepalese greeted us as we passed, children ran behind us with mischievous smiles and antics. The friendliness continued as we rolled into the medieval city of Bhaktapur and got swept up into the improbable spectacle of the ‘Biscuit Festival’. An immense, brightly painted wooden pagoda was hauled through the street with much excitement. But the side streets we later cycled were the highlight for me with stunning intricate carvings of Nepalese architecture.

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Offering a ride in Yangshuo, China

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The evening of the Tiananmen Square massacre

Beijing, China, June…Last week the experience of Bruce offering a ride to a rice farmer cut through culture and language. Against the emerald green rice paddies in Yangshuo, with water buffalos ploughing the fields, we cycled in bewilderment. It was as if we had been dropped into a National Geographic article.

Contrast to today, we tackled ‘bicycle kingdom’ as it’s called. There are 4 million bicycles in Beijing! We dodged and weaved. We passed locals going home from the market with upside down chickens tied to handle bars; their squawking adding to the cacophony of tinging bike bells and incomprehensible Cantonese. I can’t believe we found our bikes after we had stopped for lunch, for there must have been thousands of them alongside each other.

Our cycling experience in China would become far more dramatic as shortly after that diary entry, we were trapped in Beijing during the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Our bikes played an integral role in planning our escape; that however is a story for another time.

Cycling the Islands of Norway

Cycling the Islands of Norway

We gladly embarked on an overnight cycling trip while we lived in Norway, only bikes and ferries on that adventure. Along the shores and through the islands we meandered, only sheep impeding our progress. The Norwegian cycling infrastructure is also superb; paths routed along lush green fields and colourful fishing villages nestled tidily beside icy fjords.

But unlike the Dutch, appropriate gear and helmets are the norm, one does not casually jump on their bike without paying heed to their attire. And I’ll give the Norwegians credit, there isn’t such a thing as bad weather, only inadequate clothing.

By the time we had left Norway, I had acquired the requisite rain pants, jackets, boots, reflectors, even a ‘rain cover’ for my backpack. It all makes good sense when your bike becomes your chosen mode of transport.

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World Bicycle Relief

As I wrote this blog, I was conscious of the millions of people that don’t have the privilege of owning a bike, despite the vast improvement it would bring to their life. I came across World Bicycle Relief. This organization believes that a bicycle in the hands of an African student can change many things, and it does.

Bicycles for Educational Empowerment Program provides bikes to students, teachers and healthcare workers in rural Africa. 70% of the students this program donates cycles to are girls.

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Students with a WBR bike

In places such as Botswana, Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania and Zimbabwe, to name a few, students using bikes mean covering greater distances, arriving safely at school on time, less fatigued and ready to learn. Grades and attendance improve for those students that have received bicycles.

I listened to the story of Ethel, a vibrant fifteen year-old. Before owning a bike, Ethel walked more than two hours each way across hilly terrain to attend school. Now on two wheels, she is able to dramatically reduce her commute time, allowing more time to pursue her dream of becoming a nurse. Ethel also helps others in the community by offering rides when possible.

I’ve decided to donate to World Bicycle Relief, to give someone like Ethel the opportunity to improve their life. I think of it as paying homage; to all the cycling experiences that have enlivened, coloured and enriched my life. I wish the same for them.

Our tandem, bicycle for two

The tandem, a bicycle for two

They’ll be home…where the garden is, where memories live

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The pond, for fishing and skating

Our evening stroll offered swooping owls, waddling ducks and darting dogs. The sun sunk low into a newly planted field that borders the acreage, we call it home…’the farm.’ I’ve made my way back to Canada to surprise my parents for their 40th Anniversary, returning to a plot of land that embodies nature’s bounty, a lifetime of work and more memories than can be captured on film. But there’s no need; the images are imprinted on our hearts, embedded into our collective family memory.

This land, a grain field forty years ago, is now an oasis with towering blue and white spruce, and ponderosa pine that shelter from howling north winds. The grass is verdant this spring, its rich emerald hue a backdrop for flowers in bloom, golden spurge and delicate May Day trees.

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At the garden shed

These are the prairies of Western Canada where settlers have arrived for the past few hundred years; enticed by fertile farm land, hopeful for idyllic homesteads and new beginnings.

From their European homelands they ventured by ship, uncertain of what the future held. They journeyed onward by train, along the newly laid Canadian Pacific Railway, disembarking at communities across this vast country.

As with my mother’s family in the ’50’s, many arrived from the Netherlands, risking all for a new life; hard work and toil yielded success. Proud, new citizens in a welcoming land. Some settlers trekked from the east or the U.S. in caravans of wagons, stacked high with furniture and family. The wagon parked on the acreage from my father’s family, is a proud reminder of their storied journey. Now a backdrop for a yellow rose bush, it was once a means of transport. A working wagon for hauling hay, feed, grain to elevators.

Quiet country roads

Quiet country roads

In my family, you garden, work in the yard, grow things, landscape and stroll the land; just as our ancestors have done. Is it in your blood, this need to commune with the land, I feel it is. I felt it wouldn’t be spring for me until I could dig a little, plant, walk the dogs along scented lilacs and quiet country roads.

And so, I’ve come home to my parents and I find them where they should be…where I’m delighted to be.

They’re ambling below dreamy blue skies, dogs nudging at their sides and geese gliding over sky. I’ve found them plucking asparagus, planting gladiolas and poking hollyhock seeds into tilled earth. It’s time to cut first grass, take the ‘storm plastic’ off and let the deck breath, prepare the planters and the ‘beds’. Soon the kitchen table will display their bounty; bouquets of lupins, tulips, dahlias, peonies, lilacs and glads.

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Tulips in bloom

My parents awaken, work and stroll to a symphony of cooing, cawing; a melody of birds. Plump robins, doves, meadowlarks and elusive owls. Partridges, pheasants, hawks and cowbirds chirp and squawk. Butterflies flutter and bees flit past, en route to blossoms and buds.

Where grandchildren played and played

Where grandchildren played and great- grandchildren now play

Under billowy clouds, skunks duck into warrens and gophers tunnel, deer prance through fields past gangly hares. The dogs wait patiently on a weathered deck as we have a ‘wee dram’ at dear, long time neighbours. Storm clouds brew, awakening our senses as we rush home through the shelter belt of trees.

These glorious days of spring find us reminiscing of grandchildren that grew up in this haven of outdoor activity. My children who were raised on different continents, came here…to be home.

Towering elms

Towering elms

Here, with cousins, they learned how to skate on a frozen pond and ‘hold on tight’ for tractor-drawn sleigh rides. How to build snow forts and duck snowballs. Summers passed in perpetual movement…running barefoot over green lawns, soaked and squealing. ‘Secret missions’ played out through trees and fields. Golf carts, bikes and trikes circled the yard, eager for an adventure.

It’s here they played ball, built campfires and gazed at a million stars. Where Grandpa taught them how to fish, to golf, to ‘drive a standard’ in a rusty, green pickup truck. Where Grandma ensured they knew how to play ‘Texas Hold Em’, sing ‘Hollandse leidjes’ and bake waffle cookies. Yes, it’s here they came to bond with family, find their roots, to become…Canadian.

This oasis has been a constant in our lives, a refuge on the beloved flatlands of the prairies. I find my parents offering the same inviting hospitality that has always been for my family, since the day I was married…here, on this land. The elms and pines are taller now, the wagon more weathered and the kitchen table a little scuffed from hearty meals and lively gatherings.

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Grandfather’s wagon

And as it was recently when I crept into their home from halfway around the world, it was as always, gezillig…that Dutch word for cozy. The surprise was genuine; as were the friends and family here to celebrate these two special people. I know we’re fortunate to live and travel the world. Yet, we have a haven to come home to…it’s just east of Barnwell*, Alberta, Canada. And my parents, I’ll find them here…home.

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An Anniversary surprise

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The colour of beehives

*Barnwell is not named after a barn and a well, but after William Barnwell who immigrated from England. His family dates back to the Baron de Barnwell who came from Normandy with William the Conqueror in 1066

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An early spring bouquet

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The neighbour’s barn

Snapshots on the road to Tofino…

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The Amphitrite Lighthouse, Ucluelet

“Would you like to take their photo,” the dog owner asked without hesitation, already reigning in her three large pets. We had stopped to take a photo of an ageing wooden boat on the main street of Ucluelet.

“That would be great, if you’re sure?” I asked. But the lady, who introduced herself as Janice, was already scooting her three dogs up on the bench that was positioned in front of the Evelyn May. Its once brilliant colours still brightened up the otherwise ordinary street. The fact that it had become an unintended focal point on main street in a small Canadian town, didn’t surprise me.

Scooby, Honey and Keyna

Scooby, Honey and Keyna

Vancouver Island is that kind of place, comfortable in its unpretentiousness, resplendent in its natural beauty; an incomparable delight at the continents edge. It took ten minutes or so to get the dogs positioned just right, but Janice didn’t mind. She was more than pleased to display her three adorable hounds and they just happened to be wearing colours that complimented the faded hues of the Evelyn May.

It had been like this, the last 24 hours, chance encounters with many friendly folk. We had made our way from the structured elegance of Victoria and woven along the Pacific Rim Highway towards the ocean, to the wild margins of Canada’s most westerly point.

We had purposely taken our time, stopping frequently when our curiosity was piqued. And there’s been much of that. Sites that we were pleased to have stumbled upon; people with whom we were thankful we had stopped to share a moment.

For Canadians, visiting this part of the country is on most people’s wish list. The surfing, kayaking and whale watching, the seamless marriage of ocean and rainforest, the inviting harbours and superb seafood. The island is a living picture of ethereal beauty, but also home to thriving trade and industry. In the small harbours and hidden inlets are lumber mills and mining, fisheries and canneries, fishing trawlers nestled beside gleaming white yachts.

Cowichan Bay

Cowichan Bay

We chanced upon one such place; Cowichan Bay with its long history as a fishing destination. From the early 1900s, Cowichan Bay attracted sportsmen from all over the British Empire for superb salmon fishing, earning the name of Salmon Capital of the World. It also beckoned celebrities such as Bing Cosby and John Wayne in the 50’s to fish for sport. Tales abound at the renowned local hotel of legendary fishing conquests from those days. It’s a peaceful bay where whales are said to wait patiently for the salmon run; anticipating the feast that will come their way.

The drive took us onwards to the the small city of Duncan, home to more totem poles than anywhere on earth. This is the land of the Coastal First Nations who carve their legends and lore into towering cedar logs. I am transfixed by the vivid colours and enchanting stories that inspire this unique art. It’s here that we met Robert from the Cowichan tribe, one of the ‘people of the warm land’. Robert sat on a bench surrounded by the symbolism of his ancestors, backdropped by a bright red Canadian National railcar. He lamented wryly that despite being drawn to this spot for inspiration, ironically, because of an allergy to cedar, he could never linger long.

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The totems in Duncan

Robert told us that his great regret was never being able to give ancient stories life through wood carving. He took the time to relate his painful upbringing in a residential home, of the wayward ways of youth in his tribe and of better times now emerging in Duncan. I pointed out to him that Mr. Duncan himself was carved in the tallest totem towering nearby, a reminder of the confluence of tribal and settled lands. I asked him whether he regretted living here.

“No, I’m happy in Duncan, it helps me forget the past. I hope you like our town.” Robert said to me with an appreciative smile. “Where are you from?” Skirting the complexities of my life, I told him that I didn’t live in Canada full-time, but that I loved being here and learning about his history.

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Colourful snapshots

“In fact,” I told Robert, “I’m from Alberta originally and hadn’t quite appreciated the vast differences between the coastal and the plains First Nations people.” I was really only now coming to appreciate this. Instead of hunting and subsisting on the buffalo as the tribes of the plains people had, the coastal people had relied on the ocean, primarily on whales. Given that the whale hunt was crucial for survival, whalers were the one of the most honoured members of the tribe. The expedition to intercept, kill and tow a whale home with a canoe in the open ocean was perilous. Not least of which was first the necessity of stitching up the mouth of the whale, so as to not take in more water and thus sink the crew and canoe. Every part of the whale was instrumental for survival. As with the plains people, I sensed there are many aspects from these former days that are keenly missed today.

On we went from Duncan to Parksville where we walked on the tidal flats of Qualicum beach. Rippled sand, Brant geese on their grand migration gorging on eel grass and sea lettuce, the moon pulling on the tidal waters. At dinner our waitress asked where we were headed. “We’re on our way to Ucluelet.” I replied.

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Strolling amongst the ancient cedars

“I hope you’re staying at Black Rock,” she said expectantly. “I just stayed there on my honeymoon, it’s the only place to be.”

“Yes that’s where we’ll be, glad to hear that.” We chatted a little more and I asked where we should stop along the way. She told us the drive was beautiful and not to miss Cathedral Grove.

As we cut west towards the Pacific, we soon found ourselves there. Captivated by the beauty, we ambled through old growth forest where 800 year old Cedars and Douglas Firs tower over ferns and mossy, twisted branches. As eagles swooped over dizzying tree tops, I could appreciate the reverence for the cedar tree. Every part of it was used by the First Nations. The inner bark was woven into mats, baskets, even waterproof clothing. Branches became ropes and the rot resistant wood was fashioned into canoes, houses, totems and ceremonial masks. In fact, the regions first inhabitants simply called it…the tree of life.

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Angelo in Port Alberni

When we got to Port Alberni it was very much in the clutch of a spring chill; a counterpoint to the budding cherry blossoms, the bright daffodils and lime green willows. We walked along the harbour, the pulp mill belching into the misty air, snow lingering on distant peaks. We came across Angelo, sitting on a bench with binoculars, spying across the inlet. He was keeping an eye on the logging unit he had worked with for 38 years.

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An iconic Canadian train station

“I moved here from Italy after the Second World War, through Ontario but I eventually found work here. The pulp mill was hiring,” he told us, his handsome face belying his 80 some years. When I asked Angelo if he had any regrets that he moved to Canada, he shook his head. “It’s been more than a happy life and besides, I have too many Canadian grandchildren to ever return to Italy,” he told us fondly. We talked awhile and shook hands. I sensed he was pleased that we had taken the time to chat, as were we. If I’ve learned anything at this stage in life…it’s to take the time to converse. Connecting with people and hearing their story is always a privilege.

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A colourful snapshot in Port Alberni

We also took the time to slowly cruise the back streets of Port Alberni, chancing upon colourful, striking everyday images. Port Alberni also retains its original train station, a design that is emblematic of most small towns in Canada. Constructed from the same blueprint, these iconic structures have welcomed people like Angelo as they arrived from afar to build a new life in Canada. Now the train tracks are less busy, with once useful cars spruced up for museum pieces or left to rust. A reminder that few things stay the same in life, but also that there is beauty in the old and abandoned, as well as the vibrant and living.

Onwards to Ucluelet where we planned to spend some time, between here and Tofino. As we checked into the Black Rock Oceanfront Resort, a welcoming young man, Mustafa opened up a local map to show us the region.

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On the road, Vancouver Island

“The Wild Pacific Trail is right outside, if you’re lucky you’ll see whales as you hike along it,” he offered.

“Wonderful, we heard the Pacific Rim Whale Festival is on this week, hoping to see some! Are you from this area Mustafa?” I asked.

“I’m originally from the Middle East, I came to work for a summer and never left.” I looked past him to the massive windows beyond the lobby. They frame the Pacific ocean as it pounds against the craggy black rocks.

“I understand why,” I said, full with anticipation of the stay ahead.  Full of new found appreciation for this special place on earth.

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Surfers in the Pacific Ocean