I can’t take credit for these pictures. Recent road trip photos captured by my husband –
I can’t take credit for these pictures. Recent road trip photos captured by my husband –
Tomorrow afternoon notes boards a plane for Saskatchewan. Battleford Saskatchewan to be precise, home to my mother and marginally older sister. Growing up we were “the sisters” – born 10 months apart in the same year, two people who couldn’t have been more different. Family is complicated, two sisters born the same year, thrust into one whether they liked it or not proved excruciating. Leaving home eradicated “the sisters”, forget drifting apart – we bolted in opposite directions. Decades passed, barely speaking to each other, years of judgement and mistrust with sporadic sprinklings of obligatory niceties.
Can’t say why I dialed her number, we hadn’t spoken in several years. All I knew was suddenly it mattered. Suggestion I was about to meet my best friend would have produced a “shut the f**k up”. We had nothing in common, let alone hope of setting assumptions aside long enough to hear each others voice – couldn’t have been more mistaken if I tried. Our lives changed that day, we heard each other for the first time and liked what we saw.
I fly away with giddy anticipation, tomorrow promises precious time with my curiously peculiar sister. We’ll dance, call bullshit and howl at the moon. She’ll indulge my affinity for the stars, and I hers for wine and sewing dance costumes. We’ll bemoan lost time and embrace whatever trouble our proximity evokes. We won’t squander our time together, although I must remember to apologize in advance to her infinitely patient husband. If you don’t hear from me for a few days, know I’m well and having the time of my life.
Today arrived with seasonal grumpiness – an unconscious, yet predictable mid winter moment when pining for Northern Lights took hold. They always find me – Auroras are like that. Caught in their spell – never letting go, knowing precisely what I need. I’ll let my family believe a trip to Saskatchewan is for them – Aurora knows better.
Fresh off the plane, barely a foot in my door, and trying to decompress enough to put my week on the prairies into words. It isn’t an easy task; I feel like someone who’s surfaced from a deep rabbit hole – a little dazed, still adjusting to the bright light of day. Don’t get me wrong – everything I’ve ever written about the prairies holds true. The prairies haven’t lost their magic, despite skies too cloudy for auroras and nary a blizzard to assault my rain forest sensibilities; Saskatchewan never disappoints.
My family thinks I’m completely out of my mind; from the moment I stepped out of the terminal in Saskatoon, a silly grin invaded my face. It was -17, snowing, with a 60 Km/hour wind wreaking all manner of havoc – wind chill measured at -27. “No” I replied, “I’m not cold, this is outstanding, I couldn’t be happier”. Every snow drift, grain elevator, freight train or dip in the road, worthy of a photo.
I’ve travelled many places yet never get over the gob smacking starkness of our great plains. A starkness possessing an inexplicable quality – perhaps simply a place where the seasons make sense, where frivolity has no place. Around every corner light skips between anything sturdy enough to brave the elements. Prairie sun predictable as winter’s road closing tantrums; glorious sunshine transforming vistas into landscapes that rival any I’ve witnessed.
On Monday notes will be on a plane, landing in the heart of the Canadian prairies. Our prairies; vast, hard working, practical – a place so foreign from my city life, I might as well be travelling to another planet. A planet full of wonders and beauty: a place to regroup, take stock and re-charge. Saskatchewan beckons for practical unpretentious people, exemplary work ethics, a sense of community and lets not forget – that endless sky.
Travel serves many purposes; sometimes we want to explore foreign lands, at times to full fill obligations or simply step away from our daily routines. More and more, travel involves a “destination” , cruise or “all inclusive” experience. All too often we over look travelling to those places in our own back yards, places that can provide the tonic our lives are missing.
For me, a trip to the Canadian prairies reminds me of what’s important; it gives perspective to my nation, and restores faith in our great country. Maybe I’ve been a city dweller far too long – maybe cities have become so bloated, so driven by money, greed and status that I’ve forgotten how it feels to be welcomed by a stranger, smiled at as I walk down the street or had lunch in a restaurant without bleached, silicone “Barbies” presenting my menu on an IPad.
Prairie people don’t blither on about “farm to table”, don’t survive on Quinoa and tofu, they don’t announce for all the world to be organic vegans or lactose intolerant, gluten sensitive environmentalists while handing their Escalade keys to a valet.They simply live; they live sensibly, without pretension or airs.
Saskatchewan isn’t “quaint”, uneducated or backwards in any way – Saskatchewan is real. A place supporting the arts at unprecedented levels, a place where people know who their neighbour is because people are there to help each other. The prairies remind me of how life should be; a sense of community, work ethic and unity.
Perhaps I’m clinging to some romantic illusion of the past, or maybe, just maybe prairie people have the secret to that empty feeling so many of us have. Ponder not the size of the place you live in, rather the size of your capacity to be humble, honest and hard working. All I can say for certain is I’m a better person after each and every visit to the bread basket of my great country.Strip away pretension or status and life appears to fall into place. Life finds rhythm when you smell the seasons while gazing at an endless sky. Life makes sense when community means a way of life rather than a centre to lift weights.
I wouldn’t be a particularly responsible space weather geek if I neglected to report on uppity sunspots. Sunspots AR 1730 and 1731 are getting cranky; currently a 40% chance of M-class and 5% chance of X-class flares in the next 24 hours. Ho hum you say? Most likely the case – but never fear, I’m on the job and will let you know if any spectacular eruptions take place.
I just heard from my sister in Saskatchewan; feeling green with envy as she’s sitting on her front steps watching the Northern Lights dance. Auroras are a magical gift – they find you, wrap their arms around you, and feed your soul. Argh – so jealous.
Solar eruption on the far-side of the sun – courtesy NASA
I learned something interesting about the Beaver of all things. Once the backbone of Canadian fur trading, this rather large rodent may adorn our nickel, yet is considered nothing more than a nuisance. Their fur of little value in a world of synthetic fabric draped political correctness, the Beaver inhabit a realm known as pest. In parts of Canada like Porcupine Plains, Saskatchewan they even have a bounty on their seemingly worthless hides.
Not so fast people. According to David Suzuki they could be the most important animal on our planet. It seems their relentless dam building serves a special purpose. By creating ponds, they trap water destined to evaporate from small streams. By building dams they make deep ponds out of trickles the summer sun would have turned to dry creek beds.
Dr Glynnis Hood studied the impact of beavers on water levels in a given landscape. Elk Island National Park near Edmonton, Alberta had seen every last beaver trapped by the late 1800’s. In the 1940’s seven beavers were introduced and park rangers kept meticulous records of their activity. Looking at park records, Hood noticed a dramatic increase in water levels once these beavers got busy.
A fish hatchery in Methow, Washington is using the beaver to restore pools of late season water to areas where salmon stocks are dwindling. In Montana cattle country, conservationists introduced beaver to what had become dry valleys by late summer. Limiting livestock access, and letting the beaver do their thing; remarkably these bone dry valleys became lush and green the following year.
Pondering the beaver I can’t help but think of the greatest man made disaster in North America. The “dust bowl” of the 1930’s was the result of poor farming practices; stripping indigenous grasses from the great plains removed nature’s perfect defense in times of drought. Protective layer gone, complete with five foot deep root systems; the top soil simply blew away.
It worries me to watch arrogance grow, believing we control our environment. Anything getting in the way of progress is eradicated with nary a thought. It makes me crazy to think this might come across as preachy, there just isn’t any other way to put it. All of us need to ponder the “balance of nature”. Today’s nuisance beaver might one day be our saving grace; in times of drought – find a beaver.
I’ve been in Battleford, Saskatchewan for the past few days. The official web site for the town lists three must sees on their “attractions” list. First – the water tower; admittedly decorated quite festively in lights that must have been strung for Christmas. Second – the greenhouse (not too sure about this one; perhaps a place to grow tomatoes year round) Third – a monument built to celebrate the spot the Olympic torch for the 2010 winter Olympics stopped on it’s run across Canada.
My sister lives in an incredible old renovated farm house overlooking a lovely river valley. An island in the river, directly below her house boasts five tagged moose. This is extremely exciting, we’ve looked for those moose every day.
Walk in the other direction from her house and you find yourself picking along a few sleepy streets of aging war time homes, dotted with tired two story relics of days gone by. The Queen’s Hotel is next; and yes – it looks exactly as it does in this picture from the turn of the last century. While the saggy, pealing exterior of this once practical prairie inn, show the 100 odd years of hope – fresh dreams grace the crooked steps in the form of the new Korean immigrant owner. A hand painted sign declares Korean food is now available, not at a loss for improvements; the drive-thru liquor sales are something to behold. Despite the promise presented on another carefully hand painted sign, drive-thru is a relative term. You align your car tires with deep ruts carved in snow, bump your way along the width of the building; stopping at a back entrance. In hindsight “drive-thru” in the depths of the prairie winter; simply means you leave your vehicle running as you hop out and knock on the heavy wooden door. Liquor is sold; in a blink you’re back in your toasty car, navigating a sharp turn onto the deserted street.
As fun as that might sound, the essence lies within. We arrived around 10 PM on a Wednesday night. Just as we walked up, four men exited the bar. Stopping in their tracks; as if we were apparitions, one found his voice to ask if they should come back inside. Our polite ” no thank you” crushed a momentary spike of masculine bravado – they trudged off as we entered the completely empty bar. My sister has lived here for years; quick to point out, this is a dangerous place on weekends, I take it with a grain of salt as we down our beer, watching the lone female employee play pool with the owner’s son.
When my sister informed us that another hotel and bar was just up the street, we paid our tab, and braced against the night’s chill with giddy excitement. I never dreamed our little walk would turn into a small town adventure. She happily pointed out the “opera house”, proudly explaining it was being renovated into an arts centre.
Battleford Opera House
As we made our way up the street to the Windsor, it occurred to me that the only people we had encountered in the past hour were the four men as we entered the Queen’s bar, the bartender, and the pool playing son.Approaching the Windsor my sister explained it was owned by the same Korean family.Instantly the sign outside offering drive-thru liquor sales made sense.
In fairness to the Queen’s – a picture from the same era.
The Windsor boasts an illuminated drive-thru off sales sign, what’s more – once we bellied up to the bar the patrons grew from two to five. Minding our own business was simple at first. On some level we were pleased not to be alone in the bar, for myself ; I was starting to think it was a ghost town. Isolation was the poetry bouncing around my head when the drinks started to appear on our table. Apparently women at the Windsor, Wednesday night was a big deal. Looking back, it was like a script from David Lynch. We thanked the man who bought us a round and continued talking. Who were we kidding. The bartender brings over a tray of shots, he called them “slutty cowgirls” – butterscotch schnapps, cherry whiskey, and whipped cream (or milk he tells us if you have no cream) Yikes – we counted five. Three of us, the bartender, plus “Wayne” who has decided to follow his money to our table.
Wayne wasn’t much older than my daughter, and half the age of my happily married sister and myself. He seemed harmless enough; telling us he couldn’t make it home that night because the roads were closed due to extreme winter conditions. It had the ring of truth – I understood he was bored and lonely, so we made a unanimous, unspoken decision to be nice ladies rather than stuck up bitches. A nice theory as long as all parties are on the same page.
While certainly not universal to small town loneliness, alcohol fuels all sorts of situations. Wayne starts grabbing my leg, then my ass. OK Wayne, enough! We ask the bartender not to let him buy any more rounds, but it seems the bartender is bored as well. Round after round appear on the table. By now we are beyond drunk. Wayne has a creepy look in his eye, and we’re five blocks on foot from my sister’s house.
There isn’t a dramatic ending to this story. Much like a sleepy little town, we slip away, though I honestly can’t remember dodging Wayne. I remember walking down ice ruts in the middle of the street, and I know for a fact that in four hours and two bars we saw a total of nine people. We didn’t see a moving car, hear sounds from the homes we passed, or so much as a dog bark.
Battleford has a population of around 4000. Cross the river, you’re in North Battleford, with roughly 15,000 residents. Follow the highway and it could be any small town in North America. Gas stations, motels, and a Walmart sprawl amongst car lots, fast food, and farm equipment sales. Venture off the highway, your first block encompasses something my sister calls the “golden triangle” . An area bordered by the RCMP station, liquor store, and courthouse – need I say more? Personally, I like the old movie theatre. Pawn shops, bingo halls, and lonely retail relics line the dreary street.
It takes a certain fortitude to stay the course in a small town. I envy the ability to exist in a world without constant distraction or stimulation. Money isn’t flashed about, as most people don’t have a lot. Fashion is practical; warmth wins over style – truly liberating. Most astounding, the “arts” take centre stage.
I was there to help my sister sew dance costumes. She works for Dance Saskatchewan, on the side she makes costumes for what seems like every dance school in the province.Dance is as much a part of Saskatchewan as hockey is to Canada. Without exception, every spot on the map has a school of dance. I’ve officially mastered the tu-tu, yet despair for the fact we only completed 100 or so of the over 500 costumes facing delivery by the middle of March.
My greatest pleasure was being in a place where stars shine brighter than street lights. Sadly uncooperative, the weather allowed only one fleeting moment of the northern lights. It didn’t matter; endless skies, sunsets to rival any I’ve seen in the world, and ice fog more than made up for it.
Small towns are alive, their hearts beat to a different drummer. Life is never simple, the Battleford’s have plenty of problems; the “golden triangle” attests to the brick wall many residents face. That said – I found peace in a week away from the plastic life of the city.
Call me crazy, I won’t care. A week or so from now I’ll find myself in Battleford, Saskatchewan, and I couldn’t be happier. I grew up in the country; my rural childhood had seasons, wildlife, and something I perceived as isolation. Aside from the occasional rocking thunderstorm, and the time lightning struck and demolished the tree next to our house – it lacked extremes.
Canada is a very large country, a place with vastly different weather patterns. My farm childhood pales in comparison to that of the prairies. I grew up with lakes and mountains. I lived in a valley, surrounded by fruit trees and sagebrush. Sure it snowed, but never enough to halt our daily march to the school bus, or heaven forbid – issue a “snow day” at school.
In my early twenties I spent a winter working at a hotel in Grande Prairie, Alberta. This is the place responsible for my fascination with weather extremes. I barely had time to wrap my head around the sun peering just above the edge of the horizon for a few hours each day, when terms like ice fog and snow rollers entered my vocabulary. Ice fog was my first lesson in the wonder of very, very cold weather. I knew about block heaters for car engines, you plugged your car in at night to keep the engine fluids from freezing. I didn’t know that despite this, at -40 or -45 degrees Celsius a coin still had to be flipped each morning to see who had to go out and get the thing started. I had no idea my car tires would become flat where they sat on the ground, and that everyone thunked along the road until their tires warmed up. I had no frame of reference to ponder temperatures so cold , water vapour in fog would form ice crystals that hung in the air. Barely able to catch my breath; snow rollers assaulted the house. Far from scientific my explanation of this phenomenon is summed up as high wind blowing across the prairie picking up snow, this snow forms balls, pushed by the wind and growing as they roll along, they smash into the side of your house with a rather astounding thwack.
Officially hooked on weather, I sought it out rather than waiting for it to come along. While extremely cold weather seemed to offer the most excitement, I wasn’t picky. Any weather rush would do.
Hail storms fueled my hunger. Driving through “tornado alley” in the states gave me goose bumps. One night as we drove across South Dakota a tornado was visible between the lightning flashes. I see my first flash flood as if it were yesterday. We were at the Monument Valley on the Utah/Arizona border when massive thunder clouds started to build on the horizon, within minutes the wind was blowing sand with such force it stung. All around me people scrambled for cover as hail and rain fell with force beyond imagination. I didn’t move, I couldn’t take my eyes off a red rock cliff; transformed into a muddy waterfall. Out of nowhere an old Navajo man appeared, he talked to me, explaining why mother earth had sent this storm. Never before or since have I felt as “spiritual” as I did that moment.
Last summer in Cuba, tropical storm Emily passed over Havana. Sitting at the edge of our hotel’s roof top pool, I felt the storm before I saw it. Oblivious to the pounding rain, wind, or frantic appeals by hotel staff to clear the roof; I smiled as funnel clouds formed, dropping down and retreating, teasing me with their elegance and power. The hotel staff literally pulled me from the roof as lightning lashed with a fury that surprised and rejuvenated me. Deposited in my room just in time to witness a lightning bolt strike the building next to us. Every hair on my body stood on end, the building rocked as deafening echoes bounced off the battered city. It was incredible, one of my best days.
So now I’m off to Battleford. A tiny blip, planted squarely in the centre of the Canadian prairie. A place where freezing rain, blizzards, and wind chills are a fact of life. I’m going to visit a place where weather changes in the blink of an eye, and best of all; a place where the endless sky, unobstructed by mountains or city lights will give me a front row seat to auroras. The northern lights show will hopefully be the icing on an extreme weather shot in the arm.
Snow Rollers –
Now that Barack Obama is safely in the White House, I’ve turned my thoughts back home. The problem is – I’m not recognizing what I see. Even more disturbing, is the fact that Canadians by nature are a cheerful bunch, willing to accept, overlook, and forgive. We pride ourselves on a set of ideals that this Canadian sees evaporating before my eyes.
The Harper government is now denying chemotherapy to refugees. I can’t think of many things more un-Canadian. For one refugee lucky enough to have settled in Saskatchewan, the provincial government stepped up to cover the costs.
Under Harper, Canada’s military spending is at its highest since the second world war. His government pushed for an extension of military involvement in Afghanistan. He insisted that Canada be involved in the NATO response to Libya, with Canadian jets flying 10% of the sorties. He has been critical of the UN, and outspoken in the defence of Israel.
Harper’s reformist ideology seemingly lacks a place for women, in the form of pay equity or equal rights. The abortion debate has reared its ugly head again, and funding has been cut by almost half for women’s programs. From the arts to environment, principles that Canadians hold dear have been replaced by an unrecognisable right wing agenda.
The Canada I see is not the Canada I know. My Canada is the voice of reason. A nation of peace keepers; the home of Romeo Dallaire and all the unsung heroes from Croatia to Rwanda. My Canada accepts religion, sexual orientation, and race. My Canada doesn’t choose Justin Beiber over a meeting of provincial premiers, even if Beiber is Canadian. My Canada likes to visit America but remembers what it is that makes us Canadian.
I’m not sure why Stephen Harper wants to re-make Canada, I’m certain however, that we like it just the way it was.