Entering the Primordial Forest

Primordial: “existing at or from the beginning of time” (Oxford Dictionary).

Although our friends have assured us that this forest may have sprung up a little more recently, it is easy to imagine we are walking (unsteadily) in the footsteps of our prehistoric ancestors.

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We have just spent four glorious days with our friends Dave and Nancy at their hidden-in-the-woods cabin about a half-hour boat ride up the Sechelt Inlet.

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If you’re running from the law, you need go no further: no-one is going to bother you up here.  And the 20-odd families who have cabins here want to keep it that way. Not that  any of them have criminal intent. They are an eclectic, interesting group of people who share a love of pristine nature, but still enjoy happy hour with their neighbours. They borrow tools, swap stories and look out for one another. But the remoteness and the absolute quiet is the draw.

Dave and Nancy bought their place more than a decade ago and come here every chance they get.  They have invited us to visit a number of times, but until very recently (when they bought a boat), it was a long and difficult a journey to get here from Nanaimo ( car, ferry, car, ferry, car, water taxi). We are so happy we finally made it; now we know what they’re talking about.

This strip of cleared land along Sechelt Inlet is home to a small number of cabin-owners, a quarry and a fishing camp. Everything else belongs to the bears, the lynx, the owls, and the seals. High mountains covered with thick forest fold down to meet the water. A few hardy humans have carved out small spaces for themselves out of this wilderness – you have to be here to understand what “off-grid” means. Wifi and cell service does not exist.

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Until just a few weeks ago, Dave and Nancy depended upon a generator, propane and batteries for power. And then, with a little help from family and friends, voila…

…solar panels that generate the equivalent of 30 amp. service.  This allows Dave and Nancy to bake a cake, read by electric lights, and enjoy a hot shower.  Lanterns, flashlights and candles are still in use, for atmosphere and old time’s sake, and the only source of heat is a wood stove. That picturesque building in front is a room with a view – a pretty loo, minus the Eaton catalogue. (there is also a regular bathroom with flush toilet in the cabin.) Just to the left of the solar panels (out of sight in this photo) is a roomy bathhouse with plenty of hot water.

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To step back for just a moment, we met Nancy and Dave many years ago at Vancouver Island University in Nanaimo, where we worked together.

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This summer we were finally able to coordinate a visit. They timed their errand day in Sechelt with our arrival and we headed up the inlet on their boat for a scenic 30-minute ride.

The inlet view has been hampered by smoke, as has much of B.C. this summer. Normally those mountains are sharply defined and brilliant in colour.

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It is a breathtaking passage, with cool, clear water that goes several hundred feet deep and layer upon layer of mountain ranges.

We pulled in and dropped anchor here. There are no docks – locals bring their boats as close as possible to shore, then drop their supplies on the rocks, drive the boat back out to drop anchor and row back to shore on a small rowboat. This is not the easy way to “get away from it all”, but so worth the effort.

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Supplies are then brought up from the water’s edge on a dirt road to the cabin by ATV and trailer. Everything that comes in has to go out ( garbage, recyclables, laundry). This is no country for the disorganized.

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Dave and Nancy put their tasks on hold while we were there, but there is much to do to amuse yourself – hiking, swimming, paddling. Stephen went in for a heroic 8:00 a.m. swim every morning, and was the first one out to the raft each afternoon. Swimming is bracing but as the old saying goes – “once you’re in…” Cool, clean enough to drink (almost), clean enough to see bottom, and so alive. Nothing like an ocean immersion.

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We went out on our second day to check the prawn trap and we were in luck – thirteen prawns! Four hours later, we enjoyed a succulent appetizer – about the freshest spot prawns we have ever eaten.

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The forest is so rich and overgrown and magical that a simple walk becomes a whimsical adventure. One of the cabin-owner’s daughters, Emily, spent her childhood summers here, and with the help of her mother, Lynn created an Enchanted Forest. Painted rocks lie at the base of many trees along the path.

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Signs point the  way to “The Point”.

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We met Emily’s parents at an early evening get-together.  Emily’s mum Lynn, on the left, and another cabin-owner, Suzanne, on the right.

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Now would be the time to tell you our “small-world” story. When we were travelling through South East Asia two winters ago, we met a lovely couple, Doug and Suzanne, in Laos.  Stephen and I were sitting in the lobby trying to capture the spotty wifi, when Suzanne burst into the room and exclaimed,”You speak English!” Apparently, it had been a while since they had met other English-speaking tourists, and this was the ice-breaker.
They are also travelling extensively, without a real home base (although Vancouver is where they touch down, and their cabin is home for a couple of months a year).

During the course of “getting-to-know-you” stories, we discovered that we were all friends with Nancy and Dave. We knew sooner or later we would see them again and luckily for us, this year they were up for the month of August.

Interestingly, they are planning a similar trip as we are this winter (Baja and the southwestern U.S.), so we will undoubtedly cross paths again soon.

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Among the many endeavours Nancy and Dave have taken on over the years, they were one of the first to run a kayaking business out of Thunder Bay on Lake Superior. They are accomplished paddlers in white water and excellent teachers for the novices as well.

Nancy and I went out one morning on a tandem kayak, and since I had only paddled three or four times before, Nancy went over the basics with me, (dip the paddle on the right, push with the left), snapped a photo and we were off.

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One perfect outing on glassy water, and I am hooked! What a joyful experience it is to glide along on quiet water and feel a part of the surroundings.

We headed out to the island and then paddled around it for our return trip.

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Just beyond the island is Skookumchuck Rapids, known among the locals as “Skook”. It is an incredible force of nature that attracts extreme surfers, as twice daily when the tide changes and the water flow reverses, it creates a massive system of waves and whirlpools with water level differences up to nine feet in height. We didn’t venture to Skook on this trip, but I’ve added this link  to give you an idea of what some people’s sons do for fun.

Locals travel the Skook to get to the town of Egmont on the other side of the inlet, but only during the slack between tides.

We stuck close to the island and pulled in to see the sea life clinging to rocks – starfish, sea urchins, anemones, crabs, sea lettuce, kelp beds.

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We cleared the top of the island and as we were making our way back, we startled a family of seals, who made a noisy dive into the water and surfaced again several metres away from us. We slowly crept along, hoping a seal would pop his shiny head up beside the kayak, but they stayed far away.

A couple of minutes later, the same thing happened – a family of seals leapt off the rocks into the water, but with far different intent. They had a pup with them and two or three of the adults kept a very close eye on us. When we lingered to watch them, they circled in and actually escorted us out of their area. No argument from us – we paddled away and they followed for quite a distance.

We pulled in closer to shore to watch a huge flock of sea birds, and as we approached, they also took off.

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Some final images of this little piece of heaven.

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Forest bathing.

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Sun setting over Doug and Suzanne’s deck.

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Sun setting over Dave and Nancy’s lower deck.

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A wonderful way to begin to wrap up summer – seeing old friends, re-acquainting with new friends and discovering yet another magnificent part of this province.

Camping: the good, the bad and the ugly

Camping can be a crapshoot. Our ideal experience involves shady treed sites, quiet neighbours, a campfire and perhaps a babbling brook. Our less-than-ideal involves all-night parties, little or no privacy, and a cast of characters that we would never otherwise meet (and that’s good thing.)

We’re happy to say that 90% of our camping experiences meet the former description – the latter is a reminder than camping is just another version of real life.

In the past seven days, we have travelled from Fernie to Manning Park, with Christina Lake as our first stop.

We’ve wanted to check out this lake for a long time –  friends have raved about the great swimming and mountain-wrapped views.

There was a hint of smoke in the air from the many forest fires that have burned all summer in the U.S. and Canada. This was the clearest day we had and the water was cool and refreshing.

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We booked into a private campground on the south end of the lake, just a block from a small beach and right around the corner from a burger/hot dog/soft-serve ice-cream stand that looks as though it’s been in business for decades.

Christina Lake has that kind of atmosphere – a summer favourite that hasn’t been gussied up yet – the tiniest bit tacky and filled with people who have been coming here for years. It’s homey and family-oriented. The kids get to play without too much adult supervision.

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The very next day, the smoke was back:

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Our campsite was fine, but for two days we were entertained by the shenanigans of the campers two sites over. The owner had already warned us about them – they had been turfed out of another campground and were “on notice.”

The main perpetrator (she of the tight clothing and bleached hair) swanned about in a shirt that boasted, “KINKY AS F–K” (we tended to believe her).  Her hapless male partner did little but smoke and sulk and at one point walked right through our campsite with a pillow and blanket, enroute to a vacant site, saying “She’s making too much noise.”  They had two young girls (quiet) and three small dogs (yappy) who barked and barked until the woman yelled out “SHUT-UP”, which would quieten them for exactly 30 seconds until the next go-round. On Day 3, they abruptly left and the rest of our stay was perfectly peaceful.

Christina Lake is not far from Grand Forks – a town that suffered terrible damage this spring from flooding. We drove in one day for something to do and discovered a surprisingly pretty town; parts of which are still recovering and likely will for years. These posters were on many storefronts that are closed and under renovation.

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We had an excellent lunch at a place called The Board Room; packed with customers since so many restaurants have yet to open. Fantastic sandwiches, great coffee, watermelon-scented ice water – a welcome change from camp food. The mood among the locals seemed to be quite upbeat – Grand Forks is a small community where everyone rallies to help out.

We also went to the Saturday market, but since it was threatening thunderstorms, there were not many people there. We did stop to talk to a couple who transplanted from Vancouver last year, bought a farm in Grand Forks and are valiantly making a go of it. It’s been a good move for them – they love the area and are obviously doing something right.

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On the way back to our campground, we saw a bunch of cars lined up on the highway, which usually means one thing: wildlife viewing. Lucky us –  a small herd of big-horned sheep.

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As we got closer, we realized there was a territorial spat going on – two males facing off, presumably for the rights to the females, who kept their backs turned to the posturing.
We watched for a long while but aside from a couple of fake charges, nothing much was happening.

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Leaving Christina Lake, we had another weird experience. Stephen was driving and out of nowhere, a car zoomed up behind him and aggressively tailgated. At the first opportunity, the driver sped past us,  honked his horn, and flipped us the bird; his face ugly and contorted.  We were gobsmacked by this unprovoked display of road rage and hugely gratified to see him pulled over a few kilometres down the road.

We drove on for four hours through tremendously smoky conditions, but by the time we arrived in Manning Park, the air quality was much better.

I’ve given you the bad and the ugly sides of camping – Manning Park was nothing but good. This was our campsite:

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We walked about 10 yards from our site to the creek. We fell asleep at night to the sounds of rushing water and rustling trees and woke up to really cool temps – about nine degrees. This is mountain camping – even in August.

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We met an interesting couple from Moncton in the site next to us – they were on their honeymoon, riding across Canada on His and Hers Kawasakis.  We wondered if they kept in formation as they rode.

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She is a PhD student who had been in Bali to study the phenomenon of the high rate of  deafness in the small community of Bengkala. Due to a geographically-centric recessive gene, 40-50 people in a population of 3,000 have been deaf since birth. The amazing thing about it is that rather than treat these folks as “other”, everyone in the village learns to sign so that everyone can communicate. This is a story for our troubled times.

Manning Park is huge – over 83,000 hectares and the main attraction is the vast number of hiking trails that range from a half-hour stroll to a six-day backcountry hike. The wildlife is another big deal – during our three and a half days here, we saw a number of animals up close.

Mum was very watchful as we approached and as we continued to slowly walk toward them, they made their elegant way into the forest. Just like that…they were gone.

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We came across a couple of bucks, who seemed far less worried about us and bounded up the slope in their own good time.

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In many areas of the park, especially around Lightning Lake, we saw an impressive system of tunnels, and every once in a while, up would pop a Columbian ground squirrel. They have no fear of people at all – as soon as this little guy saw me taking his photo, he started scampering toward me.  I’m not proud to admit it,  but I screamed and ran. I had an unpleasant image of those sharp little nails climbing up my leg.

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Hiking in Manning Park this time of year is glorious – no bugs, comfortable temperatures and over 20 trails to choose from. Since neither of us were inclined to choose from trails that were 16 km. (one way), we chose a couple of 9 km. hikes – just enough grade and distance to give us a bit of a workout.

On our first hike out, the park ranger alerted us to a mother bear and cubs that had been sighted the day before – alas, no such luck for us. Still, the scenery more than made up for it.

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We thought we might see bears on this open area – maybe Stephen’s “Hey bear” calls and my shrill whistling scared them off.

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This hike promised three waterfalls, but we saw just two. After months of hot, dry weather, neither of them were terribly exciting. It’s funny how people will walk miles if they think they might see a waterfall, and almost invariably they are a trickle, not a roar.

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Another hike we took was a 9-km. loop around Lightning Lake – the central lake in Manning Park that is a magnet for canoes, kayaks and swimmers.

We followed this path to the end of the lake and onto the other side, to pick up the trail.

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The water was like a millpond that day; we almost had the trail to ourselves.

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A bridge at the halfway point.

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Another small bridge in the woods.

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We loved Manning Park – there is so much to do there and the campgrounds (there are four) feel like the wilderness. It was the perfect way to end our camping adventures for now. We would highly recommend this park to anyone, but be sure to camp. Manning Park Lodge (the only accommodation in the park) has seen better days.

We stopped in Hope on our way to Vancouver and I would like to leave you with this photo. I don’t know why, but the sight of dogs sitting in the driver’s seat always makes me laugh.

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We will be out of cell service and wifi range for a bit – see you again in about a week.

 

Legendary Fernie

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Fernie is a town we have wanted to visit for many years, but it was never on our flight path. Now we’ve finally made it and curiously, Fernie is a lot as we had imagined – a mountain town without pretension.

We are staying right in the heart of Fernie Alpine Resort, about 4 km. from town. We are a stone’s throw from the summer ski lifts.

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While the scenery is gorgeous, it is marred somewhat by the smoky haze that has travelled south from the many forest fires currently blazing in B.C.  Apparently “smoke” is frequently part of the summer scene here and the locals take it in stride. We’re trying to imagine how breathtaking this must be in February, with metres of snow and bright blues skies.

Our hotel, Fernie Slopeside Lodge, could use a coat of paint, but you can’t beat the location. The rooms are basic, but clean and well-equipped with coffee maker, fridge and microwave – they even offer surprisingly high-end toiletries. Try finding a hotel room of any description for $65 at the height of the summer in Jasper or Banff.

We’re partial to mountain towns – they tend to have a lovely uncomplicated energy; filled with residents who are fit, active and healthy.  We lived in Banff for two years and have visited Lake Louise, Kananaskis, Revelstoke, Whistler, Pemberton and Nelson and the common denominator is the same – outdoor life rules.

In Fernie in the summer, the bicycle is king. There are dozens of mountain biking trails that range from shady paths in town to extreme alpine slopes designed for full gear and steely nerves. ( We didn’t catch the latter, so we’re showing you the former – more my speed.)

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In town, car drivers are far more courteous than we’ve seen elsewhere. If you even hesitate near an intersection, cars come to a stop and wave you through. There are a few free bike wash stands throughout the town; a thoughtful gesture that speaks to a municipality that understands the needs of its people.

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Another homage to bike life.

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And since we are on the subject of street art, after Stephen watched two little girls having their photos taken, posing in the “wings”, he could not resist following suit.

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This upscale yoga studio is typical of Fernie – fortunes from its original coal mining days have most definitely shifted.

The  main street is filled with trendy stores and restaurants, and more than a few bike and outdoor gear shops. Fernie is not turning into another Whistler by any means, but it is expanding its target market as the word gets out.

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And yet, it seems to be a town that hasn’t forgotten its residents.  In the summer, every Wednesday night offers free music and we were keen to join in. The band was forgettable, but it was fun to be part of the crowd. There were tourists to be sure, but we watched the locals mingling back and forth – their town still belongs to them.  We drank excellent local beer from Fernie Brewing  and a number of food trucks were on hand. We chose from this truck – fantastic Vietnamese food.

This little boy was having such a good time, he forgot where his parents were and went over to help himself to another gentleman’s drink.

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The days have been quite steamy – in the low 30s, so we were grateful to cool off at the Fernie Aquatic Centre.  We’ve driven by the golf course and watched people fly fishing and launching inflatables in the Elk River. It would take time to run out of things to do here.

Fernie has a rich history, which is evident in the architecture – almost all of it built after a disastrous fire in 1904.  The town developed in the late 1800’s after the discovery of a coal vein to the east of the town. After a number of tumultuous boom-and-bust periods, mining activity moved from underground to five open-pit mines about 25 km. away, and remains an essential part of the economy. In just three days here, we were stopped twice at railway tracks while 100-car coal trains chugged by to the coast.

We took a self-guided tour of Fernie’s historic downtown, beginning with the current City Hall, formerly the Crow’s Nest Pass Coal Co. offices.  The grounds in front of City Hall present Miner’s Walk – a pictorial guide of Fernie’s coal mining history from past to present.

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The Court House is considered one of B.C’s finest buildings.

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The old Imperial Bank, circa 1909, and now home to a restaurant.

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These are just a few of the notable well-restored downtown buildings. The residential side streets house a number of styles, from miner’s cottages to Victorian Gothic.

There are dozens of hiking trails to choose from and while some are multi-day, requiring advanced skills and guides, most are easy day hikes, ranging from 1-hour loop trails to 3-hour hikes with slight grades. Before setting off on our first hike, we read the hand-written sign that warned of ongoing sightings of a grizzly bear and her cubs and a black bear and her cubs. We spoke to a couple of hikers who had seen a cougar under a chair lift.

We knew we were in wildlife country and need to take appropriate precautions, so we clapped, whistled and sang as we traipsed along. We were thrilled when we stopped for a drink of water and turned around to see this, emerging from the woods just behind us:

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We were standing on the side of this boardwalk and watched this cow as she stared at us, found us unworthy and began picking her way through the marsh. My heart was pounding. And then, her calf joined her and we felt like the luckiest people – experiencing that contact with wildlife that you can easily miss by the blink of an eye.

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There were enough people on the trail that a bear encounter did not seem likely, but we did see relatively fresh scat and as we continued along through abundant berry patches, we kept our eyes peeled.

Over two days, we set out on three hikes. A sampling of the scenery:

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We drove to Island Lake Lodge, just off the highway before Fernie and set out on a hike around the lake. The lake looked quite murky but there is a raft there, presumably to encourage people to swim.

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Island Lake Lodge – accessible only by a winding 8-km. gravel road from the highway. When you finally arrive, the setting is gorgeous, and the three imposing cedar-timbered structures are pure B.C.  rustic/luxurious.  The many trails leading from the lodge are open to both guests and the public.

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We’ve wanted to come to Fernie for years and are happy to have finally made it. Right now, it hits a perfect balance between being itself and being a tourist destination. Our hope for Fernie is that it will not succumb to tourist pressures and change the face of the town forever.

We’re on our way to Christina Lake – see you again in a few days.

From migrating birds to the Final Frontier

Did you know the Arctic Tern flies more than 40,000 km. from southern Chile to the Arctic and back every year? It is one of more than 250 species of migratory birds that uses Lesser Slave Lake as a major resting point – often compared to Point Pelee (Southern Ontario) in terms of migratory importance.

A group of birds playing by the shore – the Arctic Terns are the ones with black heads.

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This is just one of the fascinating facts we learned while visiting Lesser Slave Lake Provincial Park, about four hours north of Edmonton.  The Boreal Centre for Bird Conservation is one of the attractions in the park and we dropped by to learn more about what birds might be in the area. It houses an excellent interpretive area.

The centre is a world-class research and education facility and a site for visiting students and researchers.

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Unfortunately we were in the area just between seasons for many of the major migratory birds and about three hours too late in the morning to wander the nearby Songbird Trail to any great effect. We didn’t miss out entirely though – we woke up every morning in our campsite about 6:00 am to cacophonous birdsong.

We were primarily at Lesser Slave Lake for the pristine camping and swimming but serious birders should not miss this spot.

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Our camping at Lesser Slave Lake was a full-on Discovery Channel experience. The first night there we woke up to an explosive thunderstorm. It had been brewing for a couple of hours – threatening skies and distant rumbles, but  when we tucked into our  tent for the night, there was not as much as a raindrop.

A couple of hours later – boom – thunder and lightening right overhead, crackling and pounding. Water pummelled our tent as though a giant was hurling buckets at us. It was thrilling but a bit unnerving and a bit disappointing – we wanted to watch this fantastic show, but felt pinned to the spot. We were so warm, dry and cozy and not willing to zip and unzip the tent and run to the car, getting soaked in the process.

The next morning, we woke to sunshine. Lesser Slave Lake is the second largest lake in Alberta – 100 km. long and 15 km. wide. From our perch on the white sand beach, it felt like we were staring straight out to sea.  The water is delicious –  you could almost drink it. Clean and cool with a sandy bottom – exquisite swimming. We are used to the buoyancy and life of ocean swimming,  but I could be a convert to clean northern lakes. It was also quiet – home to kayakers, fishers, stand-up paddlers and a flotilla of inflatable rafts, sharks, and flamingos – not a jet-ski in sight. This is our kind of beach.

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It is also home to amazing fishing; all the northern greats – walleye, pike, whitefish, perch and ling cod. We watched one man bring in a fish about 18″ long that his wife carefully measured before he headed off to the fish cleaning station. He caught that in about 15 minutes, just wading out to his waist from shore.

Hiking is another attraction. We headed for the nearby Marten Mountain lookout and again, we were dealing with threatening skies. We were just between systems, so weather remained changeable.

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The fire station is at the summit. This tower serves as a lookout for signs of small fires that can be dealt with before they become a serious problem.

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The fire of 2011 in Slave Lake was a catastrophe that  covered 4700 hectares, destroyed 400 structures and resulted in $700 million dollars worth of damage. It was determined that it was likely the work of an arsonist. The town of Slave Lake has rebuilt, but the effects on part of the landscape will be evident for years to come.

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We followed this path for about half an hour, but between our (my)  worries about confronting a grizzly (heightened by the many warning signs), we lost our nerve and turned back. Time to buy bear spray and feel better equipped to enjoy the wilderness.

We followed fresh moose tracks for about a kilometre – I wish we could have seen him (her) from a safe distance.

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We very reluctantly left Lesser Slave Lake a day early, as it was forecasting extreme thunderstorms.  It gave us another taste of the north that we are keen to return to – next time with our trailer.

From Lesser Slave Lake, we headed south to Dry Island Buffalo Jump Provincial Park; a place recommended to us by our friend Laurence. The campgrounds right in the park were solidly booked for the long weekend, so we felt lucky to grab the last spot in a private campground about 20 km. away.

Our camping experiences so far have been wonderful, but they have all been in provincial parks, they are well monitored and contain what we regard as camping essentials – nicely treed private sites, evening campfires and quiet, respectful fellow campers. Our very own nature cocoons.

When we drove into the private campground near Dry Island Buffalo Jump my heart sank. A line-up of camping chairs stretched down the road for about three campsites, filled with adults with drinks in hand. A boisterous game of beanbag toss was in progress. Thwap. Thwap. Thwap – this sound, accompanied by screams and encouraging yells went on for hours.  Music blasted from one of the RV speakers. A table was set up with an eye-watering amount of booze. We backed into our site, and began setting up our tent; knowing there were no other options at this late hour.
We also knew it would get much worse, but we figured they would be shut down by 11:00 pm (the enforced quiet time according to the sign.)  The park was beautiful, set right on the Red Deer River, so we tried to concentrate on the positive, but we couldn’t help but feel envious of the other campers who were situated in quieter areas of the campground.

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To make matters worse, another multi-family party set up right behind us and they carried on long into the night. We enjoyed our days away sightseeing, but our evenings were miserable, and our polite requests to keep the music down were ignored. Our complaint to the park operator fell on deaf ears, since “we can’t ask people to go to bed at 11:00.
These were not bad people; inconsiderate certainly, but just different people looking for different things. We just had the poor luck of landing in a well-known party campground on a long weekend.

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We made up for our disappointing experience in the campground by visiting the surrounding sites, primarily Dry Island Buffalo Jump Provincial Park. This is a little-known treasure of a park – very similar in terrain to the Badlands, with hoodoos and coulees, and scrub grasslands to wander for miles. This is also a prime fishing and rafting site.

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We hiked in for about an hour, and then back again, hoping to spot a rattlesnake. We never did see one, but this little fellow visited us when we stopped for a picnic.

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The area around Dry Island Buffalo Jump Provincial Park is beautiful.  I’m guessing this countryside would be referred to as High Plains as it is rolling and lush with vast prosperous wheat and grain farms. And of course, this is the land of the famous Alberta beef. The calf was on the other side of the road when we drove by, but she scurried back over to mum for protection as we approached.

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A nearby diversion was Big Valley (pop. 349), and home to the Big Valley Creation Science Museum. It was closed (in spite of the OPEN sign in the window), but plaques around the front lawn left little doubt that evolution was seriously being called into question.

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Just around the corner was recreation of an old wild west town – the Jimmy Jock Boardwalk. Not much going on there besides a fudge shop and a restaurant.

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The original jail was just up the street; big enough for one drunken miscreant to cool his heels for the night.

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At the crest of the hill, the St. Edmunds Anglican Church (circa 1916) held a command post.

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These small towns and hamlets rely on tourism to help prevent them from dying out entirely, and one enterprise here is courtesy of the Alberta Prairie Railway Excursions. They run old steam or diesel trains between Stettler and Big Valley, and package tours  include the round-trip travel, on-board entertainment, plus a staged hold-up by armed and masked bandits – for the not-inconsiderable sum of $145. Once safely in Big Valley, dinner is served and then passengers return to Stettler – a six hour excursion in total. The trains appear to be packed every time.

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We stopped at DNA Gardens for a visit. This enterprising business sells, among other things, homemade kombucha, fermented vegetables and bat houses. We bought French vanilla ice cream from this self-possessed young woman – another face of Alberta.

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And finally…the town of Vulcan. This town can lay claim to the name long before Star Trek hit the screen – it was named by a CPR surveyor after the Roman God of Fire.

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However, it has capitalized on the Star Trek series by building a themed tourist station, and sure enough – build it, and they will come.  Overpriced merch and  a chance to dress up as Spock – this was not reason enough to leave the highway, but a fun respite on our way to Fort MacLeod.

How the Ukrainians won the West

We didn’t have to travel to Alberta to meet up with Ukrainians – we have dear friends in Nanaimo who have proudly brought us into the Ukrainian fold. In fact, Stephen’s background is a mix of Polish/Ukrainian, although he didn’t grow up with any of the food/music/dance accoutrements that define “being Ukrainian.”

We knew so little about early Ukrainian settlement in the prairies  but were curious to find out more. The Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village, located a half hour outside of Edmonton, was our chance to find out. Billed as a “living history” open air museum, the village is made up of over 40 buildings that have been brought to this site from nearby settlements. The buildings are original, but the village has been constructed to represent how a typical early Ukrainian settlement between 1892- 1930 might have looked.

We picked up our site map and wandered through the excellent Visitor Centre for an overview before wandering the village. Currently on display is an exhibition of paintings by Peter Shostak, called “Painting to Remember” – about the experiences of the early settlers.  They portrayed the absolute starkness of the landscape contrasted with the hopefulness of new immigrants keen to begin a better life.

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The Village has been faithfully constructed, with an emphasis on historical authenticity.  Most of the buildings are open to the public and populated by costumed role-players who remain firmly in character as they discuss their lives and the issues of 1930. Our first stop was at the Morecambe School, where we spoke with “Miss Borovsky”. She was responsible for teaching Grades 1-5, and her male counterpart taught the older grades. As was the way back then, children walked to school; six miles uphill – both ways. Miss Borovsky roomed with a nearby family. The young blonde blue-eyed actor played her part so well that I was curious to know more about her (in real life.) Was she an actor, a student, Ukrainian? (It is not necessary to be Ukrainian to work at the Village.)

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We found out that the earliest settlers were from Galicia and Bukovina, and much to our surprise, we discovered that although the territory of present-day Ukraine has been in existence for hundreds of years, it has only been independent from Russia since 1991. Further to that, it is not politically or grammatically correct to refer to the country as “The Ukraine”, but simply as “Ukraine.”

We’ve been to a number of historical forts and villages and reenactments over the years, but this was one of the best. The characters never falter from their roles and in some cases, the accents would give Meryl Streep a run for her money. This woman spoke so convincingly, she could have just arrived from the old country. I wanted to ask her if it was hard to practice the accent, but then thought better of it, in case she was in fact a recent immigrant and I insulted her.

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The railway station, an essential tie to the outside world, and the grain elevator – one of the economic engines of small-town Alberta. Inside, we found a sassy young woman who didn’t seem that interested in working, but wanted to gossip with us. She bemoaned the fact she hadn’t found a suitable suitor yet – at age 18. She sold us two tickets to Vancouver – for $1 each, and warned us about hard seats and “many stops.”

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Churches were the heart of the community and since Ukrainians worshipped at Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, or Greek Catholic, there were churches for all parishioners.

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Homes were simple structures, often just a couple of rooms. Since the settlers had to be mainly self-sufficient, most homes had massive gardens, heavy log barns and pig sties.

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Not everything in the village came out of the settlers homes. By this time, they had access to the Eaton’s catalogue. We visited the general store, and had an entertaining visit with the young shopkeeper.

When a family with a little boy came into the store, the shopkeeper told the little kid he could have a candy but he’d have to work for it. He handed him a broom and told him to sweep off the walk. Sure enough, that walk was swept in record time and the boy had his choice of Scotch mints or black licorice.

We were hot and footsore after a couple of hours of walking, and were more than happy to accept a ride with Nathan and his team of Percherons.

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He regaled us with stories of village life, then stopped to pick up two woman and four children. As the kids scooted in beside us, Stephen could not resist telling the little boy beside me to be careful. “She hits,” he warned, and Nathan turned around and agreed. “Yes, she looks pretty vicious.” The poor little boy hopped over to sit beside his mother and kept giving me sideways glances for the rest of the ride. Perhaps all the role-playing was a bit much for him.

This Village is as much about the universal immigrant story as it is about the hardships of Ukrainians settling into a cold and inhospitable land and trying to make it home. I tried to imagine what it would be like to flee your home because of famine, war, or racially-motivated massacres and I don’t believe I have the slightest idea of the challenges so many people have faced and continue to face. Historical sites like this one are so valuable for beginning to understand what it means to be an immigrant.

A thoroughly engrossing and informative day, and a great way to end our time in Edmonton.