Saturday, August 28, 2010


As time goes by ....
We think it was 1980, 30 years ago, when we packed up Ian’s Chev panel van with our deluxe camping equipment — a Coleman stove, some rudimentary dishes, a mattress and sleeping bags — to head out on the road.
We stayed at the Lions Campground in Neepawa, Man., for one night on that trip and tossed coins at the base of the weir on the Whitemud River, wishing for exactly what we’ve enjoyed all these years.
On this trip, we pulled in late on a Thursday evening. By Friday morning, we had some old friends to see.
One of them was the weir and with some coins, we did it all again.
Ian started his journalism career with the Neepawa Press, which still publishes today. In those days, Jack Huxley was the publisher and one of the owners who hired Ian straight out of Red River Community College in Winnipeg as a green reporter.
“You were the best reporter we ever had,” Jack said more than a few times over coffee at the Neepawa Golf Course. Ian blushed, protested and then simply gave up and enjoyed the praise.

Shell of a town

The grain elevator, a silent sentinel that used to stand above every prairie town, has gone.
The tracks, once-gleaming links to the broad world beyond and patrolled decades ago by Ian’s grandfather, are pitted and rusted, with weeds sprouting between the decaying ties.
The school, the last draw the community might have for young families, closed its doors in June for the final time.
Bars cage the windows of the Shell Lake General Store, and playground equipment, uprooted and idle, lies on the empty lot where the town’s poolroom once stood.
While Shell Lake may not be dead, at the very least it’s on life support, its sluggish and thready pulse stirred only by the grey-haired newcomers who have opted for the small Saskatchewan town to enjoy its well-tended golf course, an adjunct to the Memorial Lake Regional Park that angles off the main road into the town.
Anita Weiers, mayor of the town of 185, said five houses were built last year, a landmark year for the village that has seen most of its young families head off.
“That’s a big building year for us, but young people with families, there’s not much here to hold them,” Weiers said. “Last year the government said we had to build a new (sewage) lagoon, and water treatment. Where are we supposed to get $600,000?
“We tried a lottery and a few other things that didn’t work out too well so we just had to add a sewer levy to the taxes. The taxes are higher here than in the city of Saskatoon.
“The only people to come here are those who retire here to be near the golf course, and most of them go away in the winter.”
The community has offered incentives to businesses to relocate or open up in the town, and even offered lots in the village for $1.
“What can you do?” Weiers said with a shrug. “You just do what you can and keep on keeping on.”
The visit to Shell Lake was our first to the town where Ian’s dad was born back in 1914.
“I recognize the name, but I’m not an old-timer here,” she said. “We just moved here in 1976.”
Then she remounted her bicycle and headed off down the broad main road. Traffic was not an issue.

Now that's a sausage

We had just crossed the border into Saskatchewan, naturally, since that’s what the border signage says.
The logjam was a few hundred yards away, at the gas station at the junction of highway 3, 45 and 21, at Alcurve, Alta. Everybody going either way wants to fill up in Alberta, with its cheaper gas (89.9 cents a litre, a dime cheaper than in Saskatchewan.). We joined the lineup, filled up, got coffee and tea inside and came out to the ubiquitous sound of the car alarm.
They truly are everywhere.
We’ve travelled about four hours east of Edmonton, on the blue highways on the map, smaller and slower but interesting. Stopped at Mundare, Alta., a spot we’d never heard of but filled up with gas just across the road from the big sign saying Small Town...Big Heart.
The words were written under a huge kielbasa, or Ukranian sausage for those of you who haven’t spent time in the West. Mundare is the home of Stawnichy’s Meat Processing, makers of sausage among other things.
We don’t intend to travel Canada according to “the big” category: the giant decorated Ukranian egg in Vegreville, Alta., the big moose on the Trans Canada Highway in Moose Jaw, Sask., the giant nickel in Sudbury, Ont., the goose at Wawa, Ont., but the giant kielbasa in Alberta was an unexpected surprise.
We’ve not been this far north travelling across the Prairies before and true to what friends have long said, it’s very different this way. If you’re comparing this to southern Alberta and Saskatchewan, there are many more clusters of trees, rolling hills and roadside lakes. If you’re still dreaming of life at home on the West Coast, it’s quite flat and barren.
Wildlife doesn’t exactly abound but in the space of a few hours we’ve seen a coyote loping across the highway, a badger hunching close to the ground as it scurried for cover, and multiple skunks and porcupines on the losing end of a battle with traffic.
If our campground in Devon and what’s rolling down the road late on a Sunday afternoon are any indication, Albertans like their camping equipment BIG. We were the “poor folk” in Devon if wealth is measured by the foot. With the exception of a couple of tent trailers, we were the smallest among the hundreds there. Our camping neighbour, a visitor from Germany in a small Class C rental unit, commented on our size compared to the behemoths around us. “You’re doing your trip in a small trailer,” he said in his halting, but precise, English. “All the rest of them are very big.”
Having had six people for dinner on a Saturday night in the Devon campground, we’d say that yes, we are small, but very effective. Our guests toted their own lawn chairs, helped with dinner prep and had a good time.
That is, until about 10 p.m., when the rain started to fall. Then all headed for their respective homes, ours being the smallest.

Rita's Rx

If you don’t think of your pharmacist as part of your medical care team, Rita Lyster says you should think again.
Lyster, owner, manager and pharmacist at Rita’s Apothecary and Home Healthcare Ltd. in Barrhead, Alta., has been educating her clients and customers in her philosophy as a pharmacist. She wants people to know she can dispense their prescriptions, package them in convenient plastic packets, take their blood pressure, give them injections and more.
As her business card says, she offers advice for life.
On a recent trip through her doors, she took one look at Vicki’s leg, diagnosed a fungus and came up with two over-the-counter remedies to be mixed together: one an anti-fungal and the other cortisone to help with any skin irritation. Bless her, things improved within 12 hours and she banished all thought of a long wait at a walk-in clinic.
She’s thrilled that as a pharmacist in Alberta she now has the power to issue her own prescriptions.
And she’s thrilled she’s her own boss while doing it. As a long-time employee for other pharmacies, she always felt she was dancing to their tune and not writing her own music in her own pharmacy.
She is one of five pharmacies serving a town of 4,500 people and is holding her own because she specializes in drugs. Her shelves hold over-the-counter remedies, supplements and orthotic items, the medical items common to any drugstore shelves, but you won’t see a bottle of shampoo or a bag of chips.
She is health oriented.
She has a new machine, dubbed Elvis for a reason none of her staff could really explain. She can package your daily doses in convenient plastic pouches, easy to rip apart and take one dose with you when you know you’ll be away from home.
She’s is hoping to land contracts with facilities such as care homes when they learn how easy and safe Elvis makes the dispensing process.
When she looks to the future, she’s also looking at her family. With three daughters, she thinks of her apothecary as a possible part of their future. Chelsea is in nurses’ training, Caitlin is following in mom’s footsteps and training as a pharmacist, and Caroline would be more than capable of running the business aspects of the pharmacy.
But Lyster is realistic and looks at all, or any, of that dreaming as only a possibility because her girls would do just what mom has done. They’ll formulate their own plan, act on it and make their dream come true.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Smoke gets in your eyes

Tourists line the side of Highway 16, the Yellowhead route through the Canadian Rockies, frantically snapping pictures of the big-horn sheep grazing at the side of the road.
The shutter clicks are frantic because the sheep, about three metres away, are about the only fodder for photographers. Normally, the pictures would be of one mountain peak after another but on this day the roadside markers saying Mt. Robson, elevation 3,954 metres, were useful only to a leg-crossed dog.
The markers point off somewhere indecipherable in the smoke. A forest fire near Williams Lake, B.C., is belching smoke faster than anyone could anticipate and fire officials are bracing for a cold front coming through, preceded by 60 km an hour winds.
Remarkably, we drove through the Rockies in one day without seeing a single mountain peak. Luckily, we’ve made this trip many times and seen many peaks, yet still we felt cheated. Alas for the poor tourists, perhaps making the trip of a lifetime to see a North American Wonder of the World, only to find it veiled in smoke.
But we didn’t expect to hit the rolling foothills of Alberta, and still be shrouded in smoke. Nestled in a valley campground in Devon, Alta. on Aug. 21, southwest of ever-growing Edmonton, we see and smell smoke in the air. Radio tells us Calgary is covered in it, that the entire province is suffering from smoke inhalation. There’s irony in that, amid the smoke, campground fires here are OK, while in the untainted air at the B.C. beginning of our trek there was a campfire ban.
While air quality has improved slightly today and our eyes are no longer stinging, smoke is still there. We’re thankful neither of us, nor the cats, suffer respiratory problems. Otherwise, we’d be on a camping trip, trying to stay indoors.
We set out prepared for rain, snow, sleet and hail but not smoke. Forecasters say it should improve here tomorrow, as we pack up and head for Saskatchewan.
We’ll see if the smoke has managed to cover two or three provinces.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Drug trafficking

The campground host certainly looked interested as our friend Bob said, “Why don’t you pay for the two campsites on your credit card since I brought you the drugs?”
We quickly, and loudly, pointed out that he might want to use the word “prescription”, rather than drugs since he had picked up that last little bit for us at our home drugstore before heading out to meet us for a two-day camp on Vancouver Island. We may not be young, and we may be semi-retired, but it’s our generation that first brought fear and loathing to our parents with the word drugs.
Travelling with drugs, or if you prefer prescriptions, is not simple. Between the two of us, we have a medium Rubbermaid tub full of prescriptions, supplements and natural remedies that will last us for the next four to five months. On top of that, there is a small AC/DC cooler that holds four months supply of Vicki’s medication for multiple sclerosis, meaning that only one month has to take up space in the small three-way fridge in our 17-foot Burro trailer. The medication must be kept cool at all times so reaching in to check temperature in either fridge or cooler has become routine already.
Getting the supply covered by the medical system in British Columbia was no easy feat either. BC’s Fair Pharmacare system, which pro-rates the cost of prescriptions to residents according to income, has an iron-clad vacation policy. It will cover, and issue, 100 days of any prescription. If you’re planning a trip longer than 100 days, Fair Pharmacare doesn’t care. You can easily order a longer period of any prescription, but you’ll pay full price for it.
Under FairPharmacare coverage, Vicki’s MS medication costs $67.70.
Without that coverage, it rings in on the cash register at $1,660 per month.
That wasn’t an option our travel budget could absorb.
With the help of a couple of creative pharmacies, we learned that a prescription may be ordered and covered under FairPharmacare, such an oxymoron, every two weeks. Luckily, we were setting all of this up well ahead of our departure date so were able to stockpile a couple of months, using the two-week order time frame, before we resorted to the 100-day vacation supply.
There was a panicky moment where we thought it wasn’t going to work with Vicki’s MS medication and were presented with the ugly thought that we might have to cut our trip short and make a run for the border simply to get more drugs. But a pharmacy assistant at Shoppers Drug Mart, sitting at home pondering the problem one night, decided to put Vicki’s name and prescription needs on her personal calendar. She ordered precisely on the two-week interval and came through with the needed supply with FairPharmacare coverage.
We hope she enjoyed the roses we left at work for her, with our heartfelt thanks.
None of this, in any way, defrauds BC’s FairPharmacare system. We have our prescriptions filled to last us until the end of the year. Had we stayed home and not travelled, FairPharmacare would have covered the same drugs in that time frame.
Point is, if you’re planning an extended trip, think about your prescription drug needs well before your planned departure date.
And don’t refer to them as drugs in front of outsiders, particularly campground hosts, border crossing guards, traffic cops, county sheriffs ....

Chemainus Gardens

Campground or cottage?

One of the joys of travelling with a trailer is a chance to scan the campgrounds to see what’s out there in terms of mobile accommodation, to see what other people travel with and how they have tailored the rigs to suits their needs.
But increasingly, a cruise around camp sites reveals that for a growing number of Canadians, campgrounds are becoming home, either year-round or before heading off to escape winter in the sunny south.
That’s a trend that Bryan and Micky Fleming have noticed, and they are moving to fill a need.
The change at Chemainus Garden Holiday Resort on Vancouver Island began in January, when the Flemings and their partners bought the 34-acre property, which has operated as a campground since the 1980s.
Since taking the reins, the new owners — Micky Fleming and three others — have established 35 sites for park model trailers, modular homes on wheels that sell for between $80,000 and $110,000 from VI Modular homes. Then, for $405 a month plus taxes, residents get a fully serviced site they can call home at the resort, just a short walk down the hill to Chemainus. Fleming said 20-year mortgages are available for the homes.
“There will still be RVs here, there will still be a campground component,” said Bryan Fleming, the park’s on-site general manager. “The initial plan was to squeeze 220 (park models) onto the site, but now it’s going to be more like 180 sites. We want to leave a little more room for amenities — storage for fifth wheels and boats, a work shop and maybe a clubhouse.”
Fleming said that while there are no age restrictions on who can buy into the resort, everyone who has shown an interest has been 45-plus. So far eight of the 35 existing sites have been spoken for.
“Pretty well everybody who has gotten into it is a snowbird,” Fleming said. “It’s just a question of whether they spend two or three months down south, or four or five. Some of them just want to downsize and travel more.”
Fleming also said he expects some interest this winter when the refugees from the Prairie winters start showing up in Vancouver Island.
“Winters are a lot easier here than where they come from and they don’t have to leave the country,” he said, a nod to a need for health care and the cost of insurance to travel outside our borders.
Fleming said the original house and gardens on the property were started by a Japanese family who owned the land in the 1930s. When that family was interned during the Second World War, the property at various times became a family home, a small farm and eventually a campground. Plans for the extensively renovated original home, which is now being used as a sales office, include a bistro with a deck overlooking an anticipated pool.
As well the site boasts a pavilion from Expo 86, a large facility with what Fleming calls a “community hall” kitchen and room for 110 at a sit-down dinner. The building, which Fleming thinks was the Swiss pavilion at the world exposition, ate into the group’s capital when some planned repairs turned into an entire new roof.
“We were going to start on the pool this year but the new roof changed that,” Fleming said with a shrug. But the garden has a lot of quite old and long-established plants, and a lot of rare ones too. We’re still finding things out there.”
Fleming said the group has been in touch with all the previous owners or their descendants, and that all have given the new project their blessings, something he recognizes is important in small, close-knit communities like Chemainus.
“We’re trying to hold onto the heritage stuff of the old days as well as plan for future expansion.”
He said the planned build-out for the property, a 10-minute walk from Chemainus, is three to five years.
The resort currently has a staff of seven or eight, he said, with no one except himself from further away than Duncan. His plan, he said, is to buy a park model and live in that while working. A transplant from Toronto, Fleming said he moved to Telegraph Cove in 1977 and met his wife there.
“We understand what’s like when someone ‘from away’ buys in and starts out saying, ‘That’s not how we do it in Toronto.’ We get along with and are part of the local community and we think that’s important.”
He said that discussions are underway with the local community to allow rights of passage over trails on the resort property — including access to the local golf club — for scooters, golf carts and walkers.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

First campground

The hum of a Macintosh starting up seems grossly out of place in Goldstream Provincial Park campground, just north of Victoria, B.C., an area we called home for 15 years. Even though we come to Victoria regularly from Pender Island to shop for various things, we had to look on Google Maps to find our way here.
The northwestern portion of Greater Victoria, the city of Langford, has done nothing but expand in the six years since we moved off Island, and the amount of asphalt has matched that growth. There’s a new way to reach the park, at least new to us. It was reassuring to find Ma Miller’s Pub, a familiar landmark, just before the campground gates.
Sitting here, surrounded by enormous cedars by most standards — maybe three feet in diameter — it’s hard to fathom how loggers think of them as small, and aim for higher prey. It makes you understand the occasional person you meet who was actually born on this coast, since most of us come from away, who says, “I’ve been East. Went to Calgary once.” Why leave, when this is home?
We leave, partly because we know some of what is out there. A Canada that is vastly different from one region to another, but beautiful nonetheless, constantly amazing us with how beauty can materialize in so many forms. And counting on the promise of more beautiful places we have not yet seen and know nothing about.
But still it is difficult to leave here. As the ferry pulled away from the Otter Bay dock on Pender Island on Friday, we watched wistfully. It’s a beautiful time of the year on the island, with endless sunny days for months even on this “Wet” Coast. It was difficult trying to picture our potential return in December, with rain likely pelting down from a dark grey sky. But even then, with the endless hues of blue and grey produced by the ocean, mountains, sky and island, we know it will be a welcome sight to us.
Goldstream on a record-hot July day is a haven just on the edge of the concrete jungle. Drive five minutes and the pavement radiates the heat as you run whatever errands are left for a camping trip. Our daughter and son-in-law were tickled to leave their fourth-floor apartment, with one wall of glass facing a blazing sunset, to come sit in the heavy shade of the park and barbecue some dinner. Even a few mosquitoes, unusual for this coast but a result of a late, wet spring, couldn’t drive us inside.
It’s a quiet beginning to what we expect to be a life-changing journey, even though we’re uncertain what those changes will be. In the years since we purchased our Burro, we have camped in the shoulder seasons, spring and fall, consciously avoiding the summer crush of families and campers. Goldstream is a pleasant surprise with its plethora of tents, and quiet families with well-behaved children glorying in time spent with mom and dad’s undivided attention. Watching those girls scrape through a box of sidewalk chalk announcing one’s birthday party, or a father close by as his very young son wheeled that first two-wheeler along the roadway, brings back a million camping memories for us. For our daughter last night, it was the distinctive flap of flip flops — musn’t call them thongs these days as even that has change — slapping along pavement on running feet that brought back memories. “Don’t fall,” she said, no doubt still aware of the feel of scraping skin on asphalt.
It seems a laptop does not belong here, even though during a park warden’s taking of a survey, we expressed a need for WiFi. A five-minute drive this morning put us in an Internet cafe in downtown Langford, with free WiFi.

Leaving home

This is what it looked like as BC Ferries' Queen of Cumberland pulled away from the Otter Bay dock on Pender Island. With such a pretty place to call home, it's sometimes hard to leave.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

It was doubt, not really believing we would actually pack up and go for four months in a space only a little bigger than a bathroom, that kept us from pulling the trigger on a sweet deal on a pair of folding bicycles.
We were in Oregon, on our way to join a group of fibreglass-trailer enthusiasts, when we saw the bikes, new, for $130 apiece. We thought instead that we would support Canadian retailers and manufacturers in order to wheel our way around various campgrounds across Canada and the United States.
Then began our quest to find folding bicycles in Canada, along with a serious case of sticker shock. Since we live on Pender Island, one of the Gulf Islands floating between Vancouver and Victoria, our local shopping alternatives were slim to none, and slim just left town.
So we hopped on the Internet and found that Camping World would ship them to us — but with shipping fees as pricey as the bikes themselves.
So to Plan B. We put our niece’s new husband, who works in a sporting goods store in Winnipeg, onto the problem. Sorry, he says, they don’t sell them. Plan C, we contacted a nephew in a Toronto bike shop. Sorry, he says, they don’t sell them.
Plan D, we got back on the Internet, trying to find anywhere in Vancouver or Edmonton, our first stops, that might stock them. Plan E, we stopped at a used-bike shop in Victoria, which didn’t have them, but pointed us down the road, telling us to expect to pay around $500 for one. Not going to happen.
Plan F: We whined to our friends, who whined on our behalf to their friends.
And along came that six degrees of separation thing. We snivelled to a friend, who passed it on to his brother on Vancouver Island, who told him about his former neighbour on Pender who has two of them. The former neighbour plays saxophone in the Pender Island Community Jazz Band, often sitting beside Vicki as she plays her flute.
Who knew?
On the busiest weekend of the year, when Pender’s population can explode from 2,500 permanent residents to a throng of 10,000, we headed over to the sax player’s home on a hillside overlooking the ocean and saw two beautiful bikes. And in true Pender spirit, he is lending them to us for our trip.
They are a matching pair of Raleigh Stow-Away beauties, purchased separately at thrift shops. One was picked up near a marina for $75, which makes perfect sense since boaters often become bikers when they tie up at our docks. The other was grabbed for $25. Raleigh hasn’t made these bikes in some time so they are not as light as some newer models, but their sturdy construction makes us hopeful they will hold our middle-aged weight.
The lender is unhappy with the kick stand on one of them, so is putting another in its place. And with a smile, he happily pointed out that the seats are very comfortable. Once again, Pender comes through for us.
Two bicycles now are on the list of things we think will fit under the canopy on our little truck when we roll out of here.