Making our Escape

We used to regard RVs and their snowbird drivers as a blight – traffic-obstructing, view-obscuring behemoths that clogged up highways and hogged parking spaces. We would drive by a 40-foot coach hauling a small car, and smugly comment, “their gas bill must be a killer.”  Then, our reality struck. After a cross-country trip last summer, we put our tent to the test, and it failed time and again. Gale force winds in the grasslands, rain-outs in Newfoundland, obnoxious music in places too numerous to count and an air mattress that refused to stay inflated were all annoyances that piled on and had us questioning our resolve to “keep it simple.” Long-term tenting was no longer simple and no longer fun.

It was when we started to plan our North American travels that we began to rethink our options. Alaska, the Yukon, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, the Everglades – over the next few years we hope to visit as many national, state and provincial parks as possible.  After a bit of research, we discovered a common denominator. Cabins and motels in more remote areas are limited, mediocre, over-priced or all three. To be able to truly experience parks and wilderness meant we would have to bring our accommodation with us.

And the search began. Since we have no home (with driveway), it ruled out a motorhome of any size. Our truck goes where we go, and since it is too small to support a truck camper, we began looking at small travel trailers.  A tent trailer? An A-frame? No, on both counts – a bathroom, or at least, a toilet was a must-have. We roamed the RV lots and became more and more discouraged. Most RVs are made in Indiana, and there has been such an explosion of sales in recent years that quality is hit-and-miss. Searching online reviews was illuminating. One very popular brand even has a Facebook site devoted to “haters” – a litany of complaints about shoddy workmanship, poor warranties, leaks, mold, etc.

We almost gave up, and then we discovered Escape Trailers – lightweight fibreglass trailers made right here in British Columbia – in Chilliwack, about an hour east of Vancouver. Their business plan is simple – they build on demand, and potential buyers are able to inspect models from a list of Escape owners in their area. We saw two models on Vancouver Island – one in Qualicum Beach and one in Nanaimo, and both owners were effusive in their praise for everything about their units. The resale value on the Escape Trailers is close to full price and the demand is high. We were sold.

This is the unit we chose – the Escape 21-foot trailer.

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Our trailer has a double bed, 3-piece bathroom, U-shaped dinette, 2-burner stove, and tons of storage. As our trailer was being built, we received weekly updates and photos, making us feel like expectant parents receiving ultrasounds. These are two of the final photos before we took possession.

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We didn’t think hauling a trailer would be necessarily easy, but we were up for the challenge. We read the manual in advance, watched the video and arrived for our three-hour orientation feeling pretty chuffed about it all. That soon disappeared as the mountain of information began. “Drain black water first, then grey water.”  “Top up battery with distilled water.”  “Check surge protector monitor.”

Good grief. We had booked three nights at a nearby campground to practice driving,  hitching, unhitching and the dreaded backing up. Were we ready to bring this baby home and look after it properly? I have distinct memories of bringing our first son, Alex home from the hospital, and not having the foggiest idea of what to do with him. Was he bored just lying there looking at us? Was I allowed to leave the room?  Alex took care of that foolishness by doing what babies do and we followed his lead. Somehow our trailer experience was taking on that same sense of ineptitude.

Our campground hideaway gave us the time we needed to calm down and educate ourselves.  Many people walked by and stopped to talk – admiring the trailer, giving us advice, encouraging us to be patient with ourselves. These kind people did wonders for our state of mind and busted my snobbish notions about trailer parks.

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And finally, we were ready to leave – heading down the highway to the U.S. border crossing just 20 minutes away. The trailer just followed along behind us, and as we discovered we could drive at full speed and even change lanes we began to gain confidence.

Our border crossing was a breeze – no questions about our marijuana use or political affiliations, in fact not even a query about fruit and vegetables (I left two offending oranges behind on our picnic table).

We sailed down some backroads that we had nearly to ourselves and stopped to take photos. We were doing this! Our trip had begun!

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The bucolic autumn countryside disappeared once we hit Seattle on the I-5 and then crawled, crawled, crawled through that city’s perpetually nasty traffic. Our first stop for the night was Olympia, and we were just five minutes from our campsite when we stopped at a Fred Meyers (large American store), to pick up some groceries for dinner.

The parking lot was jammed with people and surprisingly small for such a large store. Too small, as it turned out, for our trailer. This was the very upsetting result – a broad scratch across the middle of our trailer, with our door jammed and  a chunk out of the fibreglass finish.

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Needless to say, we were in a state, but since the damage was limited to the body and did not affect drivability, we made our way over to a motel, and began to figure out our next plan of attack. Dinner. A bottle of wine. An uneasy sleep, and then up at 4:00 a.m. to begin the 6-hour drive back to Canada and back to the Escape factory.

They couldn’t have been more considerate – they assessed the damage, told us to return later that afternoon to pick up our partially-fixed trailer (new door), and we headed back to our campground to wait out the weekend. As I write this in the Chilliwack library, they are repairing the fibreglass damage, and by mid-afternoon we will have our trailer back, almost as good as new.

Tomorrow morning we head south again, and our adventure will truly begin. We’ll be gone until early May – with stops in California on the way down (including a few days in Las Vegas to meet up with friends), two months in Baja, and a slow drive back, from Texas to New Mexico to Utah to Arizona to California. We’ll visit as many parks as weather permits,  and we’re sure there’ll be a story or two along the way.

Thanks for continuing to follow us!

Travelling to “the end of the pavement.”

The “end of the pavement” is a wild 26-mile stretch of rainforest on the west coast of Vancouver Island,  anchored by Ucluelet on Barkley Sound on one end and Tofino on Clayoquot Sound on the other.  The main body of water is the open Pacific Ocean which  creates changeable, tempestuous weather.  In our four days there, we experienced sun, fog, drizzle, rain, heat and cold – sometimes all in one day.

Cautionary signs warn of unsupervised beaches, rogue waves, treacherous rip tides and dangerous swimming conditions.

It’s hard to imagine the danger when the waves roll in softly and the surface is like glass.

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Clouds add drama, and the ocean looks a little less enticing for a swim.

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Waves have kicked up a bit but these are still a pale shadow of what is to come a couple of months from now. From November to February tourists flock to the coast to watch huge gales blowing in from the Pacific. This stroke of marketing genius called “Storm Watch” has enticed full houses with reduced rates, gumboots and slickers and cozy fireplaces to return to after a chilly and drenching experience.

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The “end of the pavement” used to be “the end of the dirt road” – a twisty dirt and gravel  nail-biter of a logging road  that would take two-and-a-half to three hours to drive from Port Alberni through the mountains to the Pacific Ocean. The remoteness attracted early pioneers, misfits, hermits and hippies. Rough-and tumble camps were set up right on the beach and rumour has it a young Margaret Sinclair (Justin Trudeau’s mother, and pre-Pierre) might have been one of the early  beach campers. My own parents were among the intrepid tourists who braved that road, although they did not partake of the beach camp lifestyle.

By 1972, the road was paved and tourists began to arrive in numbers to visit the newly-opened Pacific Rim National Park Reserve. This shiny new road and the National Park helped to seal the fate of the beach camping and some of that local colour was lost.

The beaches and old-growth forest remain unchanged and that is still the main draw. We camped at Green Point Campground in the National Park and since we only booked in early June, we considered ourselves lucky to nab the last walk-in site. This campground is absolutely gorgeous, offering a delicious mix of large, private treed sites with the conveniences of plug-ins and hot showers.  Sites are booked early, or as one woman noted, “it’s worse than trying to get concert tickets.”

Our site was one of 20 walk-ins – cars are left in the parking lot and wheelbarrows are available to lug your stuff to your site, about a two-minute walk in the woods. It worked out just fine, but now we know for the next time to plan a little further in advance.
This was our site – our tent tucked in between two huge  stumps. We fell asleep listening to the ocean waves crashing on shore below us.

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This area is home to a large population of bears, cougars and wolves. Just a few days ago a pack of wolves killed a local resident’s dog – a good reminder that we’re not hanging out in a city park.

Rules in the campground are strict – they ask for a “bare” campground – tent, camp chairs and lantern are the only things to be left unattended. Those choosing to ignore the rules are kicked out, so you can imagine our chagrin when we returned to our campsite to find a note letting us know our plastic water jug was a no-no.

The Park staffer was very understanding when I apologized. She told us they pride themselves on not having lost a bear (to being necessarily put down after becoming habituated and dangerous) in 18 years. She hauled out the evidence of what might happen when you leave out attractants.

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Surfing is huge here and the beaches are long, so at least from our vantage point, there appeared to be room for everyone to take turns catching a wave, without the aggression that can mar some surfing areas.

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They start ’em young here – this little girl was learning the basics from her dad, while her mother recorded the event from shore.

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A group of surfers arriving, with a little boy doing what little boys do really well – running around with a stick.

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Hiking is another huge attraction, with numerous trails to choose from. Our favourite is the Wild Pacific Trail, near Ucluelet. It can be walked in chunks or as a whole – about 8 km. in total – and much of it runs right along the ocean.

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Every bend on the path brings another viewpoint that is slightly different.

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The lighthouse.

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A gnarly tree with unusual local fauna.

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The Rainforest walks are located between Tofino and Ucluelet – 1-km. boardwalk loops on either side of the highway that feature old-growth trees, nurse trees, bogs and moss-draped branches. This is forest bathing in the truest sense of the word – we came out feeling disoriented and over-oxygenated.

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The requisite tall-tree photo

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We loved this part of the path – constructed from a fallen log.

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Grice Bay was described to us as being a “hidden gem” – accessible by a scenic 10-minute drive from the highway to a sheltered tidal cove. It was a calm and peaceful switch from the spectacle of the Pacific, and we intended to have our picnic there but discovered piles of broken beer and liquor bottles littering the area, as well as an unpalatable smell. It may well be a local party hangout. The Park is so pristine and well-cared-for that this was unexpected and jarring.

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We spent a bit of time in both towns, primarily to pick up a few groceries, access wifi or treat ourselves to a dinner out.

Tofino is the better-known of the two towns and has more amenities in the way of shops, restaurants and adventure tourism. The setting is lovely and compact, but the strains of tourism are starting to show – this is a destination that feels at capacity.  We lived in Banff for two years and the crush of tourists clogging the streets, taking up every available parking spot and filling every restaurant seat grew very tiresome. I imagine Tofino locals must feel the same way after a while.

This woman, apparently unimpressed with the popularity of Tofino, has posted a warning sign to anyone who might consider blocking her driveway or trespassing on her property.

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You can’t argue with the setting; hopefully the town can keep a bit of a leash on development, and not spoil the very elements that make this area so appealing.

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Ucluelet seems to have a bit more of a local flavour – it has a good range of accommodations and tourist attractions, but is geared more to daily life.

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In both towns and along the beach strip, accommodations are pricey. The crown jewel of this area is The Wickaninnish Inn, described as possessing “rustic elegance on nature’s edge.” Their spa has been voted by Travel & Leisure readers as being “the #1 Spa Worldwide.” This strikes me as being incredible – surely there is a spa in Bali or the Maldives or Mustique that competes? Spa prices are available upon discreet inquiry, but rooms during Summer Season run from $560 to $1800.

We mustered as much attitude as we could, decked out as we were in our campground finery, and walked through the lobby to the beach below. Nicely appointed, but not intimidatingly beautiful.

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This is a particularly blessed part of British Columbia, and is our fourth trip out to the coast. Every time we come we always say the same thing, ” we should come here more often.”

This will be our last posting until the end of October. In the meantime, we will be housesitting, doing some family visits, and planning for our next big adventure.

We’ve bought a trailer, and are planning a seven-month trip through the Pacific Northwest and southwestern United States as well as two months in Baja.

Thanks for following us this summer and see you again in a couple of months.

 

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.

 

 

“A fine city with too many socialists and mosquitoes.”

This pithy summary of Edmonton comes to you from former premier Ralph Klein; one which damns the city with faint praise and doesn’t begin to do it justice. Klein wasn’t lying about the mosquitoes.  As for the socialists – yes, it would seem they are here, armed with their bicycles and hemp shopping bags and liberal views. They help to strike a balance in an oil-defined province.

Edmonton’s skyline is dominated by building cranes, a good mix of old and new buildings and plenty of greenspace. The city is bustling with upgrades and new builds and road construction. There is a robust feeling of growth and prosperity here, without the punishing housing costs – a Canadian city that is still affordable.

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We arrived in Edmonton with few preconceived ideas, other than it has brutally cold winters and was once the home of Wayne Gretzky.   Since The Great One has not been in Edmonton for 30 years, we were obviously in need of an update.

We stayed at an Airbnb in the Whyte Avenue area – known for its leafy residential streets, and cluster of shops, cafes, cinemas and street art. Our host was Janice, a New Zealander who has lived in Edmonton for 20 years. We were very warmly welcomed, and invited to borrow their bikes, pick from their raspberry patch and we even shared a dinner with them one night.

Our host Janice, with her brother Ross on the left and partner Edwin on the right.

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Their backyard, where we spent many an enjoyable hour reading and relaxing in the shade. We stayed in the basement suite, but their garage suite gave us some interesting ideas for a future home.

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Edmonton has many neighbourhoods; each of them with a distinctive flavour and look. We really enjoy the older areas, where there are lots of trees, lush wild gardens and a mix of homes.

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The North Saskatchewan River snakes through the city and a series of trails were constructed on either side of the river that run for miles and miles. Lucky Edmontonians – they can bike, run, walk their dogs (generous off-leash areas are also provided) or go for a leisurely stroll – sheltered from cars and surrounded in most areas by trees. We took out bikes a couple of times, and just zoomed along on trails and over bridges like this one.

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Edmonton has a really strong food scene and as it happened,  Taste of Edmonton was on while we were there. This celebration of local restaurant, food truck and beverage culture was enhanced by nightly bands and attractions. I have no food photos for you – our bite-sized servings of Braised Short Rib & Mash and Almond Satay Thai Noodle Salad were un- photogenically brown and beige.

People-watching was the usual entertaining thing – three young brothers daring each other to jump off a concrete ledge; oblivious to the young couple enthusiastically making out right in front them.  The setting was just behind the stately Alberta Legislature, where we were quite tickled to see the Reflecting Pool, just beyond the fountain,  being enjoyed as a swimming pool, with nary a guard in sight to chase them away.

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An interesting diversion was a 20-minute trip along former CPR tracks over the High Level Bridge from the old Strathcona neighbourhood to downtown. We boarded a heritage electric streetcar and listened to a brief history of the streetcars while we slowly made our way  along.  This service is run by the Edmonton Radial Railway Society, entirely on a volunteer basis by society members.

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A view from the bridge:

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We took a self-guided Art Tour through downtown where dozens of art installations, sculptures, murals and paintings are located.

A clever installation, called Recycles 2001. Made of found materials, it is a testament to Edmontonian’s love of the bicycle.

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The Aboriginal Walk of Honour is a tribute to indigenous artists in the arts and film industry.  Among the notables:

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The Neon Sign Museum is a captivating collection of Edmonton’s old commercial neon signs, gathered from all over the city and mounted outside on a long brick wall.

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Right around the corner, we stumbled upon Rogers Place. A statue, entitled Wayne Gretzky 1989, stands outside, commemorating the Oilers past glories.

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Edmonton’s downtown is particularly charming because it is such a mix of old and new. The arena, flanked by new skyscrapers and the historic Mercer building.

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Around the corner from Rogers Place, an installation called Pillars of the Community 2016. Each side depicted “unsung heroes, daily faces and less-heard people.” I was struck by the profoundly moving expression of this man – neither defiant nor defeated.

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A trip to Edmonton is probably not complete without a visit to the West Edmonton Mall – the largest mall in North America. What does the largest mall look like, you ask? Well, it houses two hotels, nine attractions, including a waterpark, golf course and ice skating rink. There are over 100 dining venues, and over 800 stores. We were looking for shoes for Stephen and had 64 shoe stores from which to choose.  We both suffer from mall anxiety, but strangely the WEM elicits nothing more than a strangely floating sensation and frank curiosity.  How does one make a purchasing decision here? We tried to get a couple of crowd shots, but the mall is not crowded. The parking lots are jammed, and then the 90,000-200,000 people who visit daily simply … disperse.

Watching this young skater was calming and a bit surreal – why not go for a skate while everyone around you shops for bed linens or eats ice cream?

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A commercial scene a little closer to our hearts is Edmonton’s Whyte Avenue. We could walk there from our Airbnb – to find dinner among Ethiopian, Thai, Vietnamese, British pub, Mexican and bistro offerings. We could shop for organic produce, vintage dresses, or Fluevog shoes. We could also dig around and discover the street art.

This grabbed us – ET or the hand of God? Painted by BIP (Believe in People), an anonymous artist who paints all over the world.

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This six-storey mural,  by definitely-not-anonymous artist Okuda San Miguel, was commissioned by local restaurateur and filmmaker Michael Maxxis, and was completed  in mid-July of this year.

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Whyte Avenue is home to the Old Strathcona Farmers Market. You won’t find lemons or pineapples here – everything sold must be locally grown, baked or hand-made. It was a bit of a mob scene, but that’s what we got for arriving at 10:30 on a Saturday morning.

I liked the donut lady – her offerings presented like the precious delectables that they are.

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The usual market line-up – blueberries, bison and beets, peonies, pesto, and pillowy perogies. If someone can tell me why these cabbages are shaped like rolled cones, I would appreciate it.

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There are so many things to see and do in and around Edmonton and we just scratched the surface. We missed the magnificent Art Gallery, Fort Edmonton and Elk Island. We didn’t stop by for a drink at CP Hotel Macdonald. We did get to Muttart Conservatory. This is a  landmark in Edmonton made distinctive by four glass pyramids that house over 700 species in four biomes – Arid, Tropical, Temperate and a Feature biome that changes several times a year.

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The Feature biome, Museum of the Moon, featured a massive Moon model by UK artist Luke Jerram that has travelled the world and is currently showing in Edmonton. It was accompanied by space-appropriate music and space-imagined plantings.

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And finally – our Edmonton friends and family.  Three years ago, we didn’t know a soul in Edmonton. Now, we have six lovely connections ( eight, if you count our new Airbnb friends).

Our daughter-in-law Alanna grew up in Edmonton. Her parents (divorced and remarried) still live here and when we suggested getting together, both sets of parents invited us for dinner – all six of us. We enjoyed two wonderful dinners, long conversations about a variety of subjects and now we feel like part of Alanna’s clan. We tried to figure out how we might refer to them – are we in-laws? We decided in-laws is not quite right, so we’re pleased to consider ourselves friends.

From left: Stephen, Brenda, Mitch, Heather and Doug.

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My cousin Maureen and her husband John moved to Edmonton in December to be closer to their kids and grandkids. Luckily, we were able to connect and have a great dinner and good long visit. Maureen and I have our origins in Gaspe, then Montreal, then southern Ontario and now out west. This is one of the things we are discovering as we travel  – we all have interesting flight paths.
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That’s enough for now. We loved Edmonton, extended our planned time here by another three days and it still wasn’t enough. We’ll be back (although not in February).

We spent today at the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village just outside Edmonton, and it merits a (much shorter) blog posting all of its own. Coming soon…

Serengeti of the North

We left Fort St. John to drive north to Liard River Hot Springs in search of BIG animals – bear, caribou, moose, bison and stone sheep. Our first stop was Fort Nelson – an easy four hour drive and a comfortable rest stop – renovated Motel 6 with full kitchen and good wifi, and a very Vancouver-ish vegetarian restaurant just up the street. Perfect transition before we hit the road the next day for Liard River Hot Springs – just south of the Yukon border.

The  area between Fort Nelson and the Yukon border has earned the title “Serengeti of the North“. This area is teeming with wildlife – you cannot drive this highway without seeing animals.

First up was this big boy – we watched him roll in the mud, then lurch up to his full majestic height. We saw two bison by the side of the road, but had a nocturnal visitor just outside our campsite.  According to the park operator, Fred the bison makes his late night rounds, stomping noisily though the campground. A reminder that a nylon tent might not be the most practical choice for northern camping.

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Caribou travel in small herds, and are notorious for coming right onto the road to lick the salt. Luckily, they are timid and move away quickly once cars approach.

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Nothing timid about the Stone sheep. It falls to the driver to pay attention and move around them.

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We drove by slowly and pulled up beside the male for a staring contest. Guess who won?

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And then there were the bears; mainly black bears in the Liard River area – the grizzlies are a little further north. Our son Dan was perturbed that we were entering bear country without bear spray, and we were probably being a bit ignorant of the reality of travelling, hiking and camping in the northern wilderness. Certainly the locals come equipped to handle bear encounters. One of the park operators showed us his weapon of choice – bear bangers.  No bullets, just a loud noise.

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Signs like this one are posted in most campgrounds and hiking areas.

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As if to prove a point, we saw this little fellow just outside our campground. He looked to be just a youngster  and was so interested in eating that he refused to oblige with a decent profile shot.

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With all the bear warnings, followed by this sighting, I was quite nervous to begin our first into-the-woods hike. There was not one other car in the parking area and we were feeling quite alone. I never did relax, in spite of my manic whistling and clapping. Once I  reassured myself about the statistical odds of bear attack, I could appreciate it was a lovely woodland hike, along a creek.

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We walked along for about 20 minutes to the waterfall;  then I beat a hasty retreat back to our truck. Stephen was less concerned about being bear bait.

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We spent two nights camping at Liard River Hot Springs campground.  It was a perfect mix of rustic camping (pit toilets, no showers) mixed with a book exchange shelf at the office and homemade bread for sale.  This was our site.

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Liard River Hot Springs is not to be missed. It is one of the largest natural hot springs in Canada, with temperatures between 42C and 53C degrees. The hot springs are reached by a leisurely 10-minute walk along a boardwalk.

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Along the way, you pass by a marshy area that promised (but did not deliver) frequent moose sightings.
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And…the hot springs – ranging from scalding at the source:

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…to more temperate water for those with tender skin.

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We left Liard with great reluctance. Everyone we met was on their way to Alaska, or returning back south again. We only just skimmed the surface of the north and can’t wait to return next summer.

Even the highway has a story to tell – it is none other than the famed Alaska Highway (also known as the Alcan Highway). The Americans punched through 1500 miles from Dawson Creek to Alaska during WWII to protect Alaska from Japanese attack. Punched through is a factual term as bulldozers knocked down trees and gravel trucks followed behind at a blistering pace – timing was critical.

Driving such an historic highway felt somehow special, but the scenery alone was simply jaw-dropping. And the best part – we had the road to ourselves. Occasionally, we hop-scotched with cars and RVs, but the road stretched ahead with nothing but the view in front of us. No wonder this is such a favoured route with motorcyclists – we know so many people who have made the trek to Alaska. Imagine the freedom.

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This bike belonged to a man who had travelled all the way from Brazil to Alaska and was on his way back south to Miami, and then to South America via cargo ship. We wanted to chat with him, but he was in deep conversation with a young couple, so we just eavesdropped.

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And on to the scenery, which changed from rough and rocky to lush and green…and back again. These were our views for our four-hour drive.

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We had heard about the challenging northern roads, but we experienced mainly good conditions – the odd pothole and the asphalt a little worn in spots, but very easy to drive.  There are loads of rest stops and pull-outs, so plenty of opportunity for photos and just taking a breather from the road. It was reassuring to see a front end loader clearing rockfall.

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We made it back to Fort Nelson for the night and visited the excellent Heritage Museum there. We watched a video on the construction of the Alaska Highway; grainy old footage mixed in to great effect. To look at the photo above and realize this was a small part of a 1500-km. road that was blazed out of the wilderness in extremely difficult conditions in just nine months is astounding.

The museum exists thanks to Marl Brown, the 86-year-old “mad trapper”, who collected so many cars, trucks and artifacts he got the order from his wife to “move them somewhere.”

Marl with one of his vehicles – most of them still in good running order.

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Marl and people like him, are one of the reasons we are so keen to return. Characters, tall tales and deadly elements – this is a different and fascinating world.

We’ll be back north next summer – we have to see if the mosquitoes in Hay River are as bad as they say.

 

“God is great, beer is good, people are crazy”

The first time we heard these catchy lyrics was at the Legion in Fort St. John. Chicken dinner, $4 beer, 50/50 tickets and a meat draw. All this and karaoke, and in this neck of the woods music is solidly in the country camp.  People are Crazy by Billy Currington was the highlight of the night – sung with raspy emotion by a rangy, plaid-clad gentleman. It pretty much sums up the way of the road up here – God-fearing, beer-drinking characters who thrive in this slightly wild northern town.

We’re on Week One of our camping trip in northern B.C. and Alberta, with our first stop in Fort St. John to visit our son Dan, who has been living and working here for the past seven years. Here we are, happily re-united.

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Before I tell you more about Fort St. John, I want to share a few photos of our drive up from Horseshoe Bay, near Vancouver. We camped for three nights along the way, and enjoyed watching how the landscape changed the further north we went.

Our first night we camped in Nairns Falls, just south of Pemberton. We’re in bear country now and the hand-written “Bear in Area” signs are a responsible warning and a reminder to be aware of our surroundings. We hiked along for three kilometres on a beautiful groomed path high above the river without seeing anything bigger than a dog on a leash.

I promise I will keep selfie shots to a minimum, especially since we don’t seem to have the knack of shooting without reflection .

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The next day we drove through the magnificent Duffey Lakes Road, a twisty, scenic route much beloved by motorcyclists. It requires full attention to navigate the hairpin turns, and after a couple of hours, we welcomed the chance to stop by this lake for a breather.

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Another viewpoint as we headed north.

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This year, everything is green and lush – the season so far has been cool-ish and punctuated with plenty of rainy days. This time last year, wildfires were wreaking havoc in much of B.C. and the damage is still evident.

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Finally, about an hour outside of Fort St. John, we are in the heart of the Peace River Valley.

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The setting around Fort St. John is stunning – the Peace River cuts through thick forest, high hills and fields of canola against a backdrop of the ever-changing big northern sky.

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Just a short drive out of town and the vistas open up. The light is different, the air is cleaner, the sky is bigger – there is a defining look.

This could just as easily be northern Minnesota or Manitoba. A northern lake, built a little more for fishing than swimming.

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Fields of canola – one of our favourite Fort St. John scenes.

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Fort St. John is not as pretty – a utilitarian northern working town set on a grid (100th St. bisects 100th Ave.), with basic shopping and streets of modest homes whose driveways are filled with big boy toys. This is a typical neighbourhood in oil and gas country.

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What Fort St. John lacks in style, it makes up for in heart. Billed as “The Energetic City“, this is a very young town, populated with young families. Huge modern recreational facilities – hockey arena, curling rink, swimming pool and library provide residents with a reason to stay beyond the oil patch paycheques.

Those paycheques attract a somewhat transient crowd, but the city is also well-defined by those born and bred here. Trendy coffee shops, artisan pizza and vintage clothing stores are finding a healthy market among the Mark’s Work Wearhouse and Quiznos customers.

And now, on to the elephant in the room, the highly controversial Site C dam project. When we first began driving up here seven years ago to visit Dan, the project was on hold, and “NO SITE C” signs were everywhere. It seemed inconceivable that a great swath of the Peace River Valley would be flooded out, after the expropriation of generations-old farmlands in some of the richest agricultural land in the province.

In 2017, construction began, and in spite of huge protests and much governmental to-ing and fro-ing, the project is indeed a go. It is due to be completed in 2024, for untold billions of dollars and untold environmental damage.

While much of the site is strictly off-limits, there is a viewpoint for the public to watch the progress.  This is part of what it looks like after a year. The dam will be built roughly in this spot, with the reservoir behind it.

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While ultimately the dam will generate the least amount of greenhouse gas emissions than any other form of energy (with coal being the worst and solar being the second best), the controversy lies with the construction.

Our son Dan works on the Site C project.  He pointed out the dozens and dozens of diesel-emitting trucks that are on the site, and what their cumulative effect on the environment might be by the time this project is completed. The expropriation of prime farmland is another factor that is impossible to gloss over.

In the north, where oil and gas extraction (and its attendant environmental concerns) are a mainstay of the economy, attitudes are different than they are in the south. People here are not cavalier or uneducated; they are pragmatic. That same attitude prevails for Site C and the final economic, environmental and personal outcome will take years to be realized.

Back to our visit with Dan. We live so far from each other and only have a chance to visit two or three times a year, so we pack a lot in.  We are in a beautiful campground just outside of town, and we’ve spent a lot of time here in the evenings, going for hikes, tossing a frisbee, and sitting around a campfire.  Amazingly, the bugs have not been too bad – we’re hoping that is a trend.

On a hike near Dan’s home.

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And… a little mishap. Being on the road is no different than being at home, as far as mishaps go. You can break a tooth ( I did that several years ago in Halifax), or you can break a car window.  We had our truck parked outside Dan’s place, and as we were leaving to go out, the old gent who mows the lawn for Dan’s landlady was in the backyard, and wondered if we were the owners of the red truck. Well, yes, we were. He thought perhaps his mower had caught a rock and flung it up on our truck. He had noticed “a bit of glass”.

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Shock and disbelief turned to action (where to find a glass place on Saturday at 4:00 pm?), turned to our new reality. The land of Dodge Rams and F350s does not carry glass for our dainty Nissan, so our new window is being shipped from Edmonton and our departure has been delayed by two days. The bill for a new window is less than our deductible, but not more than we can afford, and so it goes. What to do but be philosophical about it?

Our next stop is Fort Nelson for one night and Liard Hot Springs for three nights. So far the only wildlife we have seen is a fox, and we are hoping that route further north will live up to its reputation as being the Serengeti of the North.

Wifi in campgrounds will be non-existent, and possibly spotty elsewhere, so we hope to see you all again in about a week.