Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The geography of my heart: Welcome southwestern Saskatchewan

Yours truly, atop 'Bob"
The Grasslands National Park was spectacular. I wasn't sure what to expect, overall, about finding magic in Saskatchewan. Let me revise - I anticipated connecting with family and finding beauty in relationships. I didn't expect to be repeatedly breath-taken by Saskatchewan's natural and pastoral scenes.

We left Regina and took the highway past Moose Jaw (Al Capone, tunnels, prohibition) and Chaplin (2nd largest inland salt water lake in SK). We stopped in Mortlach (sistered with a village in Scotland, says the cafe owner proudly). We ate a pretty mediocre meal at the rose garden cafe (nary a rose in sight) and went for a walk to the end of the gravel road where we found a cafe recently opened by a woman who left Vancouver to start something new: Little Red Market Cafe. It's got Commercial Drive/Main Street written all over it. Wood benches, chalkboards, long wood front counter and a mouth watering menu. It's been open all of 4 weeks and it's already made the top 10 list on the CBC Sask places to eat on the road. I ate a bacon maple ice-cream sandwich.

This is an example of the hidden gems that we just kept stumbling into. The park, as we drove into it, was all crests and coulees. Val Marie, its welcoming town, was dirt road and scraping by. We later learned that of the 40 or so students in the school there, 21 of their parents are Park's employees. The region was buffalo ground, and traditional first nations territory. The Buffalo were annihilated through over hunting, and though there is ample evidence of first nations (Cree & Sioux) presence, there was little talk of what happened when the land became ranchland. The cowboy that took me on a horseback ride said that most folks down there have some Cree blood in them.
Brian and Otis on our hike up to the 70 Mile Butte

So the Park has reintroduced Buffalo (or Bison), and has set up a new campground within the boundaries. It is so liberating to be told by Park's staff that you are free to walk anywhere - there aren't enough visitors to make free-reign harmful to the ecology. We hiked up 70 Mile Butte, the second highest peak (!) in Saskatchewan, and we tromped through the grasses along the Frenchman River Valley. We camped two nights, borrowing the Flamont's tent & gear. We nearly got blown over the first night, and the second night brought thunderstorm & showers. The mosquitoes were abominable. By the third day I was sent around the bend by the mosquitoes so we decided to spend the next two nights in B&Bs. We stayed in a restored convent in Val Marie, and our hopes of a warm meal and bath were dashed as the power went out in the region that evening. It was a really cool place to stop in, though.

What I had especially been looking forward to was a horseback riding adventure, and I got it! Riding with Dennis Lamotte, a born and bred rancher. He rode with a lasso and a cowboy hat. It was just me and him for 4 hours on our horses. I was initially a little worried about how I would survive a tete-a-tete with a taciturn cowboy. When I called that morning to confirm timing, he said '9 o'clock's fine. I don't care'. That lack of enthusiasm was a little worrisome to me. But when it came to it, we had a great time. My horse, Bob, was 20 years old and farted and grunted just like an old guy. Dennis is a grandfather, and when I asked him how many grandkids he has he said 'shit, I don't know...a dozen?'. We talked about the relationship between the ranchers and the Park, and about the history and lifestyle. Dennis' spotting skills were unparalleled. We saw Antelope, Coyote, and Mule Deer, and we crested hills with heart soaring vistas.
Dennis Lamotte and "Shorty", or as his wife calls her, "Snowflake"

The long straight roads give me lots of opportunity for digesting this experience. This land has nestled into my heart. The meta and the micro: you look down and see the ground teeming with biodiversity, you look towards the horizon and see vast open space. Being here in person has reminded me that building a relationship with our natural world is imperative. I feel way more connected to this ecosystem than I ever knew I could, and am just that much more committed to its well-being. And to the well-being of the people living there. I am so interested to know what the rest of our trip will bring. Today is Saskatoon and Craik.
Otis in the grass

Until next time!

Friday, July 26, 2013

Open skies

We've been warmly received here in Regina, Saskatchewan. Brian's sister Kate & fam (Mervin, Darien & Chase) have been amazing hosts and Otis lovers. Chase (our youngest nephew, at 14) let us take over his room and is living downstairs while we're here. Darien (newly driving, at 16) has been happy to chauffeur and let us drive his car while O is a passenger. They all take turns hanging out with Otis - and today we even got to go grocery shopping without him. Just me and Brian. It was like a date! It's been so great.

We left the Van Folk Fest early on Sunday afternoon because Thelonious, our most gorgeous cat, was not doing well. Before we left for Hornby we had taken Thelo to the vet to figure out what was ailing him and found out that he'd experienced kidney damage. Maybe from a toxin, antifreeze or lilies, maybe not. After spending 3 nights in the cat hospital on 24 hour IV, our friends Lornna & Adam, who own The Cattery, picked Thelo up. They cared for Thelo with love and exceptional attention - from the subcutaneous drip to daily checkin phone calls. I wish this story went differently, but Thelo just didn't get better. We came home on Sunday night to pick him up and spend a last night together. He purred and slept at our heads. Thelonious was 4 years old - we hoped that he'd be teaching Otis what serving a cat is really all about - he was part of making Victoria 'home' for me - he was Brian's silent partner. We really love that guy. It was so hard to say goodbye.
Brian & Thelonious loving it up in 2012
In some ways, it's been a gift to leave home and continue our summer travels. We have a lot to look forward to, and we can process our loss without constant reminders.

So. Despite this, we are enjoying ourselves and have been basking in the glow of being surrounded by community and family - through the Folk Fest to the Queen's City: Regina. Saskatchewan's tagline is 'The Land of the Living Skies' and our first night here proved it. Sitting around the patio table outside, we watched a long grey cloudline creep into our perfectly evening-blue sky. Kate supposed that the rain that was sure to fall would miss us, in what sounds like a typical isolated rainshower/thunderstorm kind of way. The wind stilled and the lowest clouds scudded by diagonally, just touching the center of my sightline. And then the wind picked up and the first drops fell. 30 seconds later we were running inside, dodging big, fat drops. 15 minutes later it was over and we were watching the anvil shaped cloud pass us by.
The view from the Flamont's front step

Today we head for the Grasslands National Park. It's colder than usual around here, so I'm so grateful we spent the extra $20 to check our duffel bag of cold/wet weather clothes. Kate has lent us their camping gear and her car, and we're stoked to explore the south west corner of Sask. It really is flat here. I can't wait to hit the open road, baby!

Friday, July 19, 2013


I'm sitting in the cozy chair with my feet up at the Hill's (the in-law parents in Nanaimo). It's beautiful, sunny, and quiet for the moment. Otis has been napping for the last 3 hours - a crazy all time nap, maybe just lulled by the silence. We might even have to wake him up. Gasp!

We just spent three nights in paradise. Hornby Island is so special. We planned this trip in late winter, booked our sites and invited a couple families, not knowing what would shake out. We ended up with a beautiful collection of adventurous, beautiful people. Children abounded! Youngest at 7 months, eldest at 14. Each family was composed of at least one francophone Quebecois so we spent the time in a fluid blend of language. One little person, Juliette, toured round the campfire at night wishing her 'bonne nuit' and 'goodnights' in equal measure. I just loved it!
Heliwell Provincial Park
This has been our second time camping with Otis, and second time camping with other families. I realised that though Otis and I spend time with my mama-friends and babes in Victoria, little O is usually sleeping, or we're walking. So these opportunities for him to just sit and interact with babies and children of all ages are so rich! And for this to happen while camping and delighting in the outdoors is just magic!
Suzie, Juliette, Mateo, Melanie & Lauralie

This evening kicks off the Vancouver Folk Festival, and is our way of marking our wedding anniversary. Though we celebrated the actual day (the 17th) on Wednesday on Hornby, this festival brings back the spirit of our wedding weekend. We are very much looking forward to bringing Otis into the tradition. We've got his ear protection, his sun protection, his nap bed. We've got our backpacks, blankets, chairs and shade tent. I remember there was a time when I showed up to the festival with just a bag. With maybe a pair of jeans in it. And counted on joining someone else's blanket. Ah, simplicity. Now we can host other people on our blanket, and so it goes.

Loving this journey.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

To Saskatchewan via Nanaimo, Hornby Island and Vancouver.

The house is in chaos, the weeds in the garden have mostly been pulled. We have piles of gear in three different rooms: camping pile, clothes pile, Otis pile. We're going away again.

Otis' garlic, planted the week after he was born. Harvested 9 months later!
It's been a month since we came home from Mexico and the time has slipped through my fingers like cold, soft water. I think we thought we'd have nothing to do in this month-long home layover but sit around, finish renos, play in the garden and maybe toodle in the canoe. Not so! It has been a whirlwind. In fact, once we're all packed up and on the road again, I think we'll catch back up with our relax.

So, what's the plan, you ask? We're moseying our way up to Hornby Island via Nanaimo where we'll spend a couple days getting back into the swing of 'away' with Brian's parents and my fam. Hornby brings us a campsite full of friends and the kind of beaches that I don't even want to tell you about cause they're so totally perfect. (shhhh.)

From Hornby we'll head down to Vancouver for the Vancouver Folk Festival where Brian and I will celebrate our 3rd wedding anniversary. Woop! And Tuesday we fly to Regina, Saskatchewan!

I laugh when I tell people we're going to spend 3 weeks road-tripping in Sask. I'm not sure why it seems funny to me. I guess I probably underestimate it as a beautiful place to holiday. People often assume family is the call to the prairies, and it is. But beyond that, it's the opportunity to understand the horizon through Brian's eyes - all low earth and sky. My horizons feel cozy with mountains tapering into oceans. It's the opportunity to experience the seasonal & climatic opposite from my only other experiences in Saskatchewan. I'm looking for heat here, people. Between family time with B's sister & fam in Regina and my Grandma Dorothy in Churchbridge, well spend 5 days camping in  Grasslands National Park. Now close your eyes. Imagine prairie grasses and low rolling hills. And there, in the distance, just coming in from the left - that us! We're on horseback, being led by a real-live cowboy. Cowman? Cowperson?  A real tourism Saskatchewan moment.

It's the opportunity to learn about our families' roots. Brian knows his Saskatchewan family story. His Dad's family farm, now run by B's cousin is on our roadmap. We'll be paying our respects to his grandparents who have passed on. We'll stop on the bridge in Saskatoon where his mom's parents met. I'm just learning my family's prairie story. We'll be sleuthing our way around Craik, SK, looking for where my Nana's grandparents homesteaded. I've grown up with stories from my Nana about the beautiful garden that her Grandmother kept. Her inspiration, I suppose, for her full, fragrant, fruitful colourful gardens. And my inspiration, in turn. We have coordinates for where my Granddad's family homesteaded, somewhere west of Prince Albert. I have virtually no stories from that side of the family. Just longitude & latitude, text messaged to me from my Dad in preparation for this journey.

This feels important as we raise a new generation. Otis won't remember this, but we'll remind him. We'll have pictures and stories that follow him forward.

So here we go! On the road again...