Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Goodbye Mr. Chips

Goodbye Casse Croute.
Coming down the south shore of the St. Lawrence River on Sunday, leaving the magic of Quebec City behind us, we found new wonders to behold. The river widens, spreading its broad brown waves in the stiff wind blowing from the east. By the time we stopped at a lookout in St. Roch des Aulnaies, Que., we knew the sea was near. The smell of salt air was all too familiar as a rare brief bout of homesickness hit.
And soon the brown murk of the St. Lawrence was split up the middle by a ribbon of blue tide.
We remembered our old Rudy dog, on arrival at the Tsawwassen ferry terminal outside Vancouver after a camping trip with our girls on the Prairies. When we opened the van door in the ferry lineup, Rudy’s head went back, with that long snout pointing straight up, sniffing the wind. Then her tail wagged.
Before leaving Quebec, we stopped at one more Casse Croute (Casser la croute means to have a snack, or have a bite to eat so basically it means Snack Bar). The roadside stands have kept us fueled all the way from Shawville, where we crossed over the Ottawa river from Ontario, but this one was different. For one thing, the frites (French fries) in Vicki’s home area are much better. For another, chou (coleslaw) is on every hot dog and hamburger that is ordered all dress (all dressed) where she hails from. At this last stop, the frites were patates, garni was all dress and there was no choux. A hot dog looks quite pathetic wrapped in lettuce. The taste was gone.
But their menu had the additions of the region — crevettes and petoncles (shrimp and scallops). The landscape was changing, both on and off the menu.
It wasn’t long until we turned south at Riviere du Loup to make our way to New Brunswick. The landscape suddenly changed to rolling hills as we headed for a night in Edmundston, every bit as French as any Quebec town but across the New Brunswick line.
Monday morning brought with it a beautiful scenic drive, much of it alongside the border with the state of Maine, as we headed south, then east to Fredericton and then south again to Saint John. The hills rolled, with signs pointing to the Canadian version of the Appalachian mountains, sporting their fall colours as the season progresses.
The moose warning signs along the four-lane highway, some of it fenced off, are effective. The signs are done to scale, with the car perched next to the looming moose, much taller than the smaller hunk of metal. The message is clear. Tangle with a moose and you’ll lose.
Smaller highways were left for side trips. One led to a stop in Grand Falls at, appropriately, the falls. Nothing to rival Niagara, the falls are a result of a weir in the St. John river and the river gorge that leads to falls and rapids, spilling over carved rock formations. Unlike Kakkabeka Falls in Ontario, there is no charge to view the falling water.
Rock alongside the highway appears like a cut through the shale we are familiar with at home in B.C., but this gleams, showing the mica it contains.
Another jaunt off the Trans Canada takes us to the Hartland Covered Bridge, the world’s longest at 1,282 feet (391 metres). A little patience as we wait our turn to travel across the one-lane structure, built in 1901 and covered in 1922, lands us on the other side in a rare patch of sunshine.
The national historic site, fittingly, saw the Olympic Torch carried through its portals for the 1988 Winter Games.
We decide maybe we won’t turn off into Nackawic, home of the world’s largest axe. So far, we’ve skipped out on many things that come with the world’s largest title attached to them. The covered bridge, the world’s longest, was exceptional.
Vicki thinks she remembers the covered bridge from a family trip made by car when she was four years old. Her only other memory comes from the Irving gas station signs, as we head into an Irving-dominated business area. On that childhood trip, she and her two brothers played a game in the backseat called Hit the Irving. At every Irving station, and there are many in the Maritimes, there was a race to hit the Irving, her older brother Ian, in the backseat. No doubt the game was conceived by her eldest brother, Warren.
Sorry brother Ian.
Husband Ian claims the game hasn’t changed.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Revved on des reves

Low cloud and and a shifting, shimmering mist veil the outline of old Quebec, like the curtain waiting to go up on a medieval play.
As the ferry from Levis draws closer, centuries-old buildings begin to take shape, shouldering aside the mist as they’ve done for more than 400 years. As the ferry docks, modern Old Quebec shows itself, stores that have served customers since before there was an America, now catering to U.S. tourists and offering Chinese-made Canadian kitch. And still the city is magical.
There are restaurants everywhere. One, just off the dock where we land, has its outdoor umbrellas folded up, their white tops and black wings tucked up like so many soggy bald eagles hunched against a West Coast winter.
Galleries, too, are around every corner, (we fell in love with a stunning exhibition of fall colour by Christian Bergeron but alas don’t have $3,000 to spend on a painting) and the winding, sometimes-cobbled streets make for many corners indeed, outnumbered only by the tourists, even on this soggy September day.
For anyone to whom history is more than a hated course in high school, Quebec City is a place apart, a permanent settlement since 1608, and a hotbed of political ferment since the English set up permanent camp in the neighbourhood in 1759.
It’s in the house where Montcalm lived, and where his troops rallied to stave off the English after their surprise appearance in the Plains of Abraham. It’s in the statues of Quebec heroes, from Samuel de Champlain to Maurice Duplessis, in the walls of the Citadel and the magnificent Chateau Frontenac standing proud above it all.
There is an efficient, bustling tourism bureau at the corner of rue Fort and rue Sainte-Anne that offers the visitor everything from guided walking tours to motorized tours, St. Lawrence river tours or local ghost tours. Helpful personel man multiple kiosks, ready to answer any question from dazed tourists.
On the streets, there is the magic of a ride in a caleche, with the guidance of sure hands on the reins from someone with a solid knowledge of the city and its history. At the corner, there are sure hands on a fiddle and a set of wooden spoons, as a musician stomps out the rhythm of traditional Quebecois music on a small sheet of plywood at his feet, competing briefly with the peal of cathedral bells as a wedding draws to a close next door.
When Ian feels this kind of magic, he also wants to move to the dream. It’s happened before, notably on a trip to Victoria to see relatives. And look where that landed us.
But we also recognize the limitations as we try to converse with anyone, about anything. We have managed to order food (a Speciale Quebecois for lunch, consisting of soup aux pois, tortiere and tarte au syrop d’erable — pea soup, French Canadian meat pie and maple syrup pie) but to progress beyond that involves much hand movement, facial expression and frustration on both sides. We could not work here.
But maybe a longer vacation could be managed. We saw apartments for rent in the old town for $650 per month, condos in redone centuries-old buildings on the market for $160,000. There are people anywhere in the world interested in house swapping, and Pender is not too shabby a spot to list on that market.
The old city brings up new dreams. We’ll sleep well tonight.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Hometown needs help

Vicki’s dad Vernon, too young to serve overseas in the Second World War, was old enough to sit on the steps of the Social Club at the centre of booming Brownsburg, an explosives and ammunition factory it’s main employer, and watch as busloads of women arrived in town, primarily from the Maritimes, to keep the plant working 24 hours a day.
Four generations of Vicki’s family have worked in that factory, making everything from ammunition to plastic combs with CIL, as the owner. Her great-grandfather, on the one day he didn’t carry his treasured pocket watch, died there in an accidental explosion, a rare but not impossible fact of life when dealing with explosives.
The plant, as it’s been known forever locally, is now part of Orica Canada, the world’s leading manufacturer of explosives, focusing on the mining industry. It, from all reports, is booming, keeping the town employment level up, with explosives the mainstay now, not ammunition.
In the past, when “the company” was booming, so was the town. Apparently not these days.
Brownsburg’s core looks like the town was actually the testing ground for the explosives manufactured just down the road. What was a handful of longtime businesses, in a block that boasted second-floor apartments to house some of the workers in the commercial core, no longer exists. When the town purchased the block, it was because it had deteriorated so badly it was condemned. It was torn down, with nothing to replace it.
The main intersection, which once boasted the one and only traffic light, now is controlled by four-way stop or arret signs, one of many such intersections in town. Across the main street was the Flamingo Hotel, a mainstay for some townspeople but it too met the wrecker’s ball. It is another vacant piece of land at that corner.
The town has a large sign up, with plans to replace these buildings, again with businesses on the ground level and residential above but the town, out of money, is seeking a partner in the project.
No one has come forward over the last few years so the town sits, looking bereft. This year’s summer work on sewers and water lines doesn’t improve appearances or function as drivers bounce through the old streets. The Social Club came down years ago, replaced by a small park now torn up for ongoing sewage and water works.
The town offers no reason to stop as cottagers head straight for their lakes to the north, and townspeople roll the few kilometres down the main road to Lachute to stock up on all their needs.
But it is clear the people who still live here are working in a prosperous environment and enjoy their homes. The houses are well-tended, brightly painted or covered in the field stone that torments the area farmers. Front porches are well used and covered in outdoor furniture. The local arena, named for the town’s only hockey player to reach the NHL, Gilles Lupien, is busy and now houses a small library at the front of the building. The Legion Hall next door is well tended and used. The largest building on the street once was the local English school, grades 1 through 11 in those days, which now is an apartment complex.
The depanneurs (the Quebec term for convenience store) are some of the few commercial outlets. The small grocery store still limps along, waiting for better times. Townspeople are served by a post office, a small pharmacy, a pizzeria, another restaurant and of course, a bar. And under Quebec law, the depanneurs and grocery stores can sell beer and wine.
Most of the Protestant churches have closed their doors, some with a For Sale sign up front, but the Catholic church, always the largest in a Quebec town, still thrives perched atop a hill.
At some point, maybe the politics will work itself out and the town will fill its coffers from taxes paid by all those who live there. Maybe then, work can begin on reconstructing Brownsburg’s once-thriving downtown core.

Sunday, September 19, 2010


Just down river, we are told, people pay $6,000 to park their trailer from May to September in a campground within sight of the Carillion Dam, producing hydro-electric power for the Montreal area.
We have parked our Burro not in a park, but on private land that once belonged to Vicki’s grandparents. We are sitting a few feet from the water, lulled to sleep by small, lapping waves. The memories of this place, now owned by one of Vicki’s many cousins, are strong for both of us since we spent some of our honeymoon here as Vicki’s parents threw a party for all those people who couldn’t attend a wedding in Regina.
Large boats go by, usually seeming to be travelling together, but it’s actually a function of the dam. They have lined up and waited together to fill up the locks before the mechanism is set in motion to lift them from one level of the river to the virtual lake that now sits on the upper side of the dam.
When Vicki sees friends in the nearby towns, she can invite them over, saying, “We’re at the camp” and they’ll know to drive out on the river road, and turn toward the water when they get to St. Mungo’s United Church.
In the early ‘60s, Vicki’s grandparents bought two lots carved out of a farmer’s field. For the first few years of cottage life, there was a fence and gates to keep the dairy cows out. Her grandfather, tired of dealing with marina owners, bought the land so he could have his own dock for his small boat. Her grandmother, who was afraid to be out on the water and never set foot in the boat, saw no point in this and insisted a pine pre-fab cottage be put in place one weekend. It must have been rainy because for years there was one muddy boot print on the living room ceiling.
But neither grandparent was the sort to stay at a cottage so they turned to their only child, Vicki’s father, and said, “You’d better us it.” One bedroom was set aside for the grandparents, who almost never used it, another housed the three kids and Vicki’s parents took the last bedroom.
Use it they did. The weekend after school was let out every June, the family packed up and moved to the camp until Labour Day. The cottage is only a 20-minute drive from what was their home so Vicki’s Dad made only a slightly longer commute to Brownsburg’s CIL factory. Her mom, a lifelong non-swimmer, was left with her three young water rats diving into the river in early morning and not leaving it until nightfall. There never was a telephone in those days so she always wondered how she would summon help if needed. The kids knew that “pretending” they were in trouble in the water was simply not acceptable. Of course, that doesn’t mean they didn’t try it occasionally.
Vicki has vague memories of looking at the land and being told that the river, way over there on what is now the other side, was going to grow when the dam was completed and be at our doorstep. Hard to believe when you’re six years old but when it was time to move in, there was the promised river. The big rock she had her eye on, figuring she could climb that one many times, was long submerged.
As a new lake of sorts, the river continued to belch up some of the bits and pieces of the flooded land. Tree parts would float to the surface now and then, but since the river was used to transport pulp logs to a mill in Hawkesbury, Ont., up river and on the Ontario side, branches were the least of a boater’s worry. Those pulp logs would become water-logged, and sink first from one end, just bopping along the surface, and wipe out a motor’s prop in one hit.
As we grew older and took to water skiing, we knew that dead heads, those submerged demons, were unwanted companions. Boat and skier could be seriously injured in one encounter.
That shiny pine cottage, always known as the camp, doesn’t shine so brightly almost 50 years later. It has weathered the harsh winters, held its roof up during ridiculous snow loads and waited for its update each spring. For Vicki’s father, and now her cousin Glenn, it becomes another home to maintain. The front side, with its southern exposure, demands paint every year, the grass always will grow and need cutting, and the cedar trees need attention to broken limbs from a harsh winter.
Remains of one dock or another dot the shoreline as dock technology evolved to the point the current structure is removed every fall. It took years for property owners along the river to find structures that could be lifted out because no matter what they put into the water, if was there in the spring when the dam is opened to release an excess of water and the ice shifts, the dock could not take the battering. Ice destroys anything in its way so the cribbing structure filled with the endless supply of rocks that make up the river bed disappeared years ago. The concrete u-shape that housed the boat, protecting it from the wash of larger boats going up and down river, was ripped from its pinnings and lies askew on one side of the property.
Glenn’s dock will be removed sometime around Thanksgiving and spend the winter, protected on shore, to wait for another spring.
Vicki and Ian sit beside their Burro, greeting the rising sun downriver and later watch it set upriiver, he with some memories of the place, knowing she is caught in the past when she’s here, at least for a time.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Our burrow in our Burro

A large bathroom.
A small kitchen.
A reasonably grand entrance to a home.
Or all of the above in a pretty small trailer.
We’re calling 98 square feet home, have done so for nearly a month and have three more months planned. The weather has turned cold and wet in Marathon, Ont., where we’re stranded without a clutch and master cylinder for our truck, so we’re learning to live inside that 98-square-foot bubble.
Don’t forget the two cats getting underfoot, often tied to a cupboard door in case they make their way outside when the outside door opens.
Kitchen items from food storage to utensils to dishes.
Bathroom items stored away so the tiny alcove can function as toilet, sink and shower all in one.
Two wardrobes: one for summer temperatures and the other for near freezing.
A double bed, permanently in place where the space could have been a four-person dinette. We’d rather have a proper mattress than fiddle with a variety of cushions and make up a bed every night.
A couch across the front end of the trailer, which with the removal of one cushion and a little work, can become a two-person dinette. We rarely turn it into a dinette but prefer an extra-long couch that allows each of us to sit with our legs stretched out across the cushions. Invariably we each have a cat in our laps.
To make the tiny space workable took some thought. We’ve been out before in the trailer we call Harley (it’s vehicle identification number, before we brought it across the border from its previous U.S. home kept turning up in Ottawa as belonging to a motorcycle. Finally, it said trailer so we decided this is one trailer that really wants to be a big bike. Hence Harley).
Previous trips of a few weeks, once in snow, let us know we had to make every inch of storage work for us. We had stuffed this, that and the other thing in the open space under the bed. It’s now organized with two plastic under-bed storage bins that house whatever clothes aren’t suitable for this week’s weather.
The littler box, a necessary evil, is also under there in a little private corner but unfortunately it’s next to Ian’s CPAP machine. Sometimes, in the middle of the night, he inhales more aroma than he cares to with his forced-air apparatus. A small bin of extra litter also is stashed under the bed, while the Costco-size box rides in the back of the truck as a refill.
What serve as supports for our bed, or would-be benches for a four-person dinette, also have storage under them but we’ve always found them difficult to access. Lying on your belly, after moving everything under the bed onto the top of the mattress, is a pain. Ian ordered two access panels from a marine supply shop to put on the outside of the trailer as alternative routes into those spaces. Unfortunately, by the time we hit the road, only one had arrived so Ian uses that access for storage of all the early setup items for the trailer plus some of his tools. Under the other seat, we have winter coats, hats and gloves that we hope we’ll not use on this trip. If it gets that cold, we’ll work up quite the sweat unloading everything from under the bed so we can open up the inside hatch to get the warm stuff out.
Beside the head of our bed, hanging from hooks attached to the wall, is a half-dozen pouches sewn together. Years ago it hung on the back of a door in Winnipeg and housed a variety of mittens and hats. Now it holds reading materials, journals, maps and serves as a great place to hang our glasses last thing at night.
Ian found a similar system made to attach to the visor in a vehicle. He fixed just inside our front door as a place to deposit keys, wallet and whatever else he finds in his pockets.
Under the couch is an open space where our feet sit if we’re using the area as a two-person dinette. Since it’s usually in the couch setup, that space is used to house assorted footwear, the computer bag and a Rubbermaid container full of our supply of prescription drugs and supplements. In this area are also what serve as two benches, again with storage bins underneath. It takes a little manoeuvring to get to them but extra canned goods, a propane camp stove for outdoor use, a cast-iron frying pan and a large pot plus a first-aid kit all reside there for occasional use.
The bathroom had become its own little nightmare until our enforced exile in Marathon when we found wall-mounted bars from which hang metal mesh baskets. We now have most of our assorted bathroom supplies in the baskets, easy to lift from their support bars and set on the bed when we each shower, wetting down that entire room.
Harley comes equipped with a three-burner propane stove and a three-way fridge, plus a few small cabinets, as its kitchen. We’ve added a small 12-volt cooler since Vicki requires a certain amount of space to keep her drugs for MS constantly cool. We also put a fairly large convection/toaster oven on what little counter space there is between the tiny kitchen sink and the stove top because it expands our culinary capabilities. Buttermilk biscuits for breakfast yesterday and lasagne for dinner tonight. If we’re set up somewhere for a few days, it is moved outside onto a small aluminium camp table.
Kitchen implements hang from 3M hooks on the walls and a magnetic spice rack clings to the tiny range hood.
On a previous three-week trip, we borrowed an iPod from friends and found it indispensable. Since we don’t have TV at home, we don’t miss it on the road but we do need music. Ian recently mounted a white wire shelf to hold the docking station that supplies speakers for our system.
To communicate with the outside world, we coughed up for a laptop that goes everywhere with us, often in search of WiFi. And when we find it, we’re in touch with the world. Family and friends can receive a phone call from us using a Skype program that allows us to call any phone in the U.S. or Canada for $3.99 a month. We check e-mails, head for Facebook and update our blog.
We also carry a little-used cell phone that we think of as emergency communications. It’s the one that rang one week after we left home to say that Vicki’s eldest brother had just had an unforeseen triple bypass. He’s doing well, and she talks to him often on Facebook.
Are there things we brought that we haven’t needed? Well, the cats’ playpen is going to a local thrift shop since they really don’t like it. That will please our 25-year-old daughters, who thought it meant their parents had lost all perspective on cats as pets. We had read about large enclosures for cats and found a playpen worked well after Ian made a top for it. Trouble was, they simply don’t like it. They are happier on their harnesses and rope.
Is there something we didn’t bring that we yearn for? Not yet, but as it dipped to freezing last night in Marathon, Ont., if it gets much colder, we could change our minds on that one.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Trouble bruin

Don’t feed the bears.
After the sign advertising the campground, that’s the first sign you see at the Penn Lake Marathon Lions Campground. And since we’re within town limits, we wondered if it was really necessary.
That’s when someone told us about the 10 bears trapped in town last week.
Okay, we thought, so there’s a bit of a bear issue, what with the cold, wet weather that descended on this northern Ontario town of 4,000 people around Labour Day, and coincidentally with our unplanned, truck-repair arrival.
We heard last Thursday that just before we set up camp, a bear was spotted nosing around the bear-proof garbage container provided for campers. Not being totally stupid, we have not set up a garbage bag outside Harley for our use. Garbage has stayed inside the trailer until it is quickly taken away to the bear-proof bins, usually by Ian.
We have been comfortable here, as we approach our last night, and unconcerned, other than to make sure Sidney and Luther, our cats, don’t wander outside with only a little rope accompanying them. One of us has been on the end of those ropes for their occasional circuits.
We have bicycled into town more than once, to haunt Marathon Classic Coffee, a mall cafe that recently installed WiFi and has profited from that, mostly through us. Breakfast was lovely this morning as we sat with computer in front of us, updating all and sundry on our transportation woes.
We have walked into town, also more than once, to check on progress at Canadian Tire and today we made our way to the golf course. It’s evident there’s an addiction issue when Ian was spotted climbing a step ladder to get into the back of our truck, by now dangling on a hoist with its transmission lifted in the bowels of Canadian Tire.
We stuck our thumbs out, with clubs at side, on the main drag and quickly were rescued by a golfer, surely recognizing an addict when he saw one. He took us straight to the course, even though he had been headed off somewhere else when he picked us up.
We were walking out of the golf course, a Stanley Thompson-designed nine-hole affair that satisfied the addict quite nicely, when a couple we had seen golfing offered us a ride. They ever so nicely, in what we see as typical Marathon fashion, brought us right back to our campsite.
But maybe what we have seen as wonderful neighbourliness has actually been an unwillingness to find out in next week’s paper that we were mauled at the side of the road while waiting for someone to take pity on us.
“I’ve had eight bears trapped in my backyard,” said this latest good Samaritan, pointing out that 60 — did we hear right? that’s six-zero, she said? — have been snagged in live traps in Marathon this summer.
It seems a plan was hatched to deal with the bear problem at the local dump. That involved double fencing, which has successfully kept the bears out, of the dump anyway. Add to that a hot, dry summer — hard as that is to believe at the moment as we snuggle up in Harley with the heater blowing — and you’ve got hungry bears discovering their favourite restaurant has firmly closed its doors.
What else to do but look for a new establishment.
Our latest driver tells us she had one, which she referred to as a beast, that really didn’t want to end up in the live trap, the one that has taken up residence in her backyard. Imagine pointing out your patio to visitors, the lawn swing, and oh yes the bear trap.
But this brawny bruin was nuzzling around the trap and looking as if it would be drawn in by the bait when it got a whiff of the chicken stir-fry she was preparing at her stove, inside her kitchen. It made a beeline for the house almost as quickly as she dialed animal control. By the time they arrived, it had fled. Eventually it was trapped and quite unhappy about it, since apparently it had been through the trap-and-relocate experience once before, didn’t care for the enforced vacation and trundled home.
In other words, the bears are being moved out of town when they show themselves to be a problem and some of them are coming back, having found — as we have — that Marathon can be quite a hospitable place.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The population may be small but the hearts are big.
Marathon, a small town of 3,800 clinging to the northern lip of mighty Lake Superior, is starting to hunch up its shoulders and turn its collar to the wind as the autumn blows cold, but there was nothing but warmth for us as we limped westward into town.
As we were heading out Thursday morning, our hitherto stalwart Ford Ranger bucked, balked and then refused to go, its clutch torn asunder. Cautiously we hobbled back to Marathon, 60 kilometres back the way we had come, and settled at Canadian Tire, the first repair shop we tried that was able to squeeze us in for a look. The bad news, the clutch was gone. Worse news, no clutch parts til Monday.
The Canadian Tire owner, Jamie Senese, said we could camp in Harley in his parking lot, but five days without services looked a bit grim. Instead we asked about a tow to the town’s campground, at the edge of a small lake.
“Take my truck,” he insisted. “Load up what you need and get set up. Then come on back and I’ll give you a ride back to the campground.”
Stopping for a few groceries on the way, we headed to Penn Lake Lion’s Campground and a lakeside, full-service camping spot, the nicest we have had since setting out. Then it was back to Canadian Tire to return the truck.
“Do you sell firewood?” Ian asked Senese. When the answer was no, Senese palavered with staff and locals about where wood might be available.
“If you just want some for tonight, I have some in my truck,” said a woman customer. “Bring your truck over and we’ll load it.”
Learning why we had no vehicle, she offered to load the wood in Senese’s truck – only to be dismayed when she realized she had the wrong vehicle with her. The wood was in her husband’s truck.
Senese then insisted we stop at his house en route to the campground to load up a supply of firewood, good for the night and more, before letting us off at our campsite and tearing off to make a movie date with his young son. Dinner would be later, he said, shrugging.
As we finished setting up, a vehicle stopped, then backed into our campsite. Suspecting it was a Lion’s Club member or official seeking camping fees, we were stunned to see the customer from Canadian Tire.
“We can’t have you stranded in Marathon and not look after you,” the woman said, laughing, as she and her husband unloaded a pile of firewood.
Not surprisingly, Senese’s Canadian Tire outlet last year won a company competition for good customer service, with the prize being use of a restored 1951 Chev panel van, or hearse, for eight months.
“Go ahead, take it for a spin,” Senese said, so Friday we hiked to the Canadian Tire store (about a 20-minute walk from the campground) and toured the town in grand style, even hauling fold-down bikes and fishing gear from our disabled truck to the campsite. Townspeople waved at us along the way.
Saturday, the weather turned cold and wet, but the town has left such a warm glow, the weather seems irrelevant.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

As Canadians, we have never seemed able to define ourselves adequately, wandering off into negative territory, comparing ourselves to others and saying what we are not.
Yet Terry Fox, a 21-year-old who would never grow much older, managed to define us more accurately in too few short months in 1980 than we have been able to since. He ran a marathon distance every day, for 143 days, as he tried to run across this vast land, beginning by dipping his only foot into the Atlantic Ocean at St. John’s, Nfld., and ending here, far short of his goal at the Pacific on the other side of the country. The monument to Fox sits high atop a hill just outside Thunder Bay, Ont., with a stunning view of Lake Superior, its sleeping giant of a hill a backdrop to the bronze statue of a young, determined man.
The monument is the focal point of a rest area on Highway 17, the Trans Canada in Ontario, indicated by a small road sign depicting a picnic table, the Ontario symbol for the thousands of rest areas along its highways. Luckily a larger sign referring to this tribute to Fox, who died on June 28, 1981, also indicates the turnoff.
We wander carefully tended pathways to reach the monument, passing under trees and down idyllic garden paths. Maybe the glorious setting fuels the impact of a monument, which reads in part that Fox changed how Canadians look at fundraising and how they go about searching out funds for a cause, in his case the cancer he could not beat.
As we drove along Canadian roadways these past weeks, we saw one young man, no support vehicle in sight, with a sign on his backpack saying he is walking across Canada. Another, spotted twice wheeling down the side of the road, backed by his crew hauling a U-haul trailer, is using his hands in a modified wheelchair to make his way across the country.
We know two young women who bicycled across the country last summer, all raising funds for one cause or another, all setting out with the expectation they will complete the trip.
Fox, the young man who started it all, finished in S?????, Ont., when the cancer that had already claimed one leg resurfaced to eventually take his life. As we look up to the statue, and we should be looking up, we wonder if he knows what he has accomplished. Does he know how many people, every September, take to Canadian roadways in every part of the nation, raising money for cancer research? Does he know a cure has yet to be found for what killed him? Does he know how many cancer survivors participate in those runs because research, fostered by the dollars Fox himself raised, has found ways to cure some? Does he know, so far, $500 million has been raised in more than 60 countries using his name?
The roadside tribute is fitting. It is a place to rest, and there is no hand extended, looking for a donation. That is left to each of us to ponder as we leave, and perhaps write a cheque later. Or maybe next August, when we first see publicity for the annual Terry Fox Run, twenty-some years after his untimely death, we sign the paperwork to enter the event and start raising our own pledges.
Or perhaps this particular disease is not the focus of our fundraising efforts, but we use the experience of Terrence Stanley Fox to raise funds for whatever cause inspires us.
And thanks to Terry Fox, those fundraising techniques are familiar territory to all Canadians.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Back to the future?

It’s a time capsule perched atop the rocks overlooking LacLu, north and west a bit from Kenora, Ont.
Like a retrospective of Ian’s life, dating back 50 years, you can draw out a statement about his past from any of the long-time neighbours, owners of what were originally five cabins, sold off by the Canadian Pacific Railway after they had served their time as rental cottages for employees. Only one of the original log cabins remains, and that as a guest cabin next to what is now the owners’ main residence.
Other cabins have sprung up along the paths that wind upward from the docks at the lakeside below, some replacing rotted log structures, and others housing young adults who have come to call this their special place, alongside their now-aging parents. The peninsula, as yet accessible only by boat, bulges at the seams. One of the next generation, still young at 30 years old, is hatching a plan to build a road into the cabins, and to a lot where he hopes to build his permanent home. For now, he rents accommodations on the lake that was so important to him as a child that he had to find a way to work, live and volunteer as a firefighter here.
Ian and Vicki’s 25-year-old daughter, Robyn, who has called Winnipeg home for eight years now, settled in for a Labour Day weekend of cabin life, with its touch of sadness that the season is coming to an end, wanting to hear all the stories about her father, the ones she was “too young” to hear when last visiting.
Her fiance, new to that role as of last week when both sets of parents were in town to hear the news, flounders as a hockey fan trying to find his place in this new family which follows the Winnipeg Blue Bombers every step of the way in the Canadian Football League. And the others whose absence is felt: Ian’s arthritic sister with new knees and new shoulders found the trip impossible this time, and his mother, at 91, staying home in Winnipeg to help her daughter in her recovery. His niece and her husband of a year now claim the bedroom Ian built in the front porch almost 30 years ago for himself and Vicki, his new wife. Jennifer and Brian, with a wedding to attend in the city, graciously lent it out to the original occupants.
There are other treasures too: an old tackle box with the lure Ian used to catch his first fish; an old wooden boat, now dragged up on the bank, that 50 years ago was the sole means of access, oars and all, to the cabin.
Bob Roe, Ian’s brother-in-law, the constant behind all the upkeep and maintenance of a second home, the man who continues to pilot the boat across the lake almost every summer weekend, is here to shepherd the old family, in many ways newcomers, around the changes in the cabin.
We don’t hear the new stories, about parties and events that happened here over the last 20 years, the ones that are memorable for the friends here who graciously talk mostly of the old days when the cottage was a central part of our lives. We appreciate their kindness in making us feel like we belong still, and in not telling us of all the great times we missed here as we made our own memories there, on the West Coast.
We wait for the constants, and are thrilled by the laughing warble of the first loon, the screeching of the eagles overhead, unexpected chatter that turns out to be not a very loud squirrel but an otter calling to its pals for play, the chipmunk nattering that torments a new generation of dogs at the base of the trees and the distant rumble of CPR freights and the occasional VIA passenger train as they make their way down the other side of the lake.
The time capsule cottage still holds some of our memories: those carved ducks deposited here when there was no longer room for them on the coast, that special mug that was Vicki’s way back in a Toronto apartment leased while she was at Ryerson studying journalism, the cherished pair of fuzzy sleeping socks she left here on the last visit six years ago, tucked away in that same little spot at the foot of the bed. But there is also little trace of Vicki and Ian’s presence, or that of their then toddler girls, as new memories have moved in. As they should.
But on the Monday evening of the long weekend, when the rest of the family has gone “home” to Winnipeg, we spend a last evening enjoying our memories of a cherished place before we head off to our little Burro in the morning and resume the journey.