Category Archives: Canada

Jane’s Story… The Internment of Japanese Canadians

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Jane Yoshiko Ikeda Hayes

Part One

The album is compact yet weighty, a visual archive of a Canadian history. Many of the small black and white photographs hit me like a blast of cold air, none more so than the photo of the Tashme Internment Camp. Hastily built in the interior of British Columbia, row upon row of tiny shacks stand in a bleak winter landscape. The image records a place where the freezing mountain air rendered the winters unbearable for those incarcerated there – fellow Canadians of Japanese origin. I’ve come across this same photo online and of other camps. Now, I sit across from a survivor who endured the misery of Tashme, and so much more.

The petite, elegant lady has entrusted the album – and her story – to me; I consider it an honour. White calligraphy on black, the inside inscription on the album reads, “May 13th, 1947, To Yoshiko Jane Ikeda, On Her Sixth Birthday.” 

The second photo I gaze upon on is one of Jane herself. About two years old, she’s wearing a darling white coat and dress, stitched by her mother. Standing for the camera with her older brother, it is a sweet photograph of siblings. Yet they – Canadian citizens imprisoned during World War Two and its aftermath for nothing more than being of Japanese descent – are far from their home in Vancouver.

It’s early Saturday morning as I pour green tea for Jane and myself. The first signs of autumn are visible from my office window– maples donning a plumage of crimson red, soft rain pattering on fading summer blooms. Jane had asked if we could meet early today. “As it’s a painful period to talk about, I’ll need to walk afterwards.” At 79, Jane, a retired teacher and lecturer, is an avid walker and skier.

During our two-hour conversation, we have moments of melancholy, of sadness, of utter disdain for this shameful period in Canadian history. Jane tells me from the outset, “There are a lot of strands, like the elm tree you wrote of in Kaslo, but there are two significant people who helped ‘graft’ me. Helped me strip away the past that stunted this fragile tree.”

Yet to fully appreciate Jane’s story and the common history of the some 23,000 people of Japanese heritage like her, we have to understand the stage in which these crimes against citizens, mostly Canadian born, was set. And it doesn’t begin on the eve of war, or later when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour. Tragically, it finds its origins long before that.

Despite Canada’s present day reputation as a nation that is welcoming to immigrants, overt racism against Asians can be traced to 1871 after British Columbia joined confederation, the point at which it became a province of Canada. Of a population of 50,000, white Canadian and European origin represented about 10,000, the remaining were mostly of Indigenous, Chinese, Indian and other Asian descent. Outnumbered and concerned about disenfranchisement, The Provincial Voters Act Amendment of 1895 stated, “No Chinaman, Japans, or Indian shall have his name placed on the Register of Voters for any Electoral District or be entitled to vote in any election.”

This also served the purpose of preventing these citizens from becoming professionals; doctors, lawyers, teachers, etc., as in order to work in these fields, one had to be on the voter list. Year by year, further Acts were passed disallowing Chinese or Japanese persons from working on railways, in mining, or at selected companies.

We know from the Indian (i.e. people of the First Nations) Act and its many manifestations of discrimination against Indigenous people, how the impacts of injustice still resonate. The Japanese, who began migrating to BC about 1877, initially worked successfully in fishing, farming, mining, and logging. In 1905 an Asian Exclusion League was formed, the building white resentment brimming over in events such as the Anti-Asian riots on Vancouver’s Powell Street. 

Despite this, by the early 1930’s many Japanese Canadians – or Nikkei – excelled in fishing and the forestry industry. They were respectful, law abiding, upstanding citizens, over 60% of whom were born in this land. Many didn’t speak Japanese and had only a connection to their ancestral roots. Yet still, the Canadian government adopted progressively more stringent tactics of disenfranchisement, more than 100 orders from 1931 onwards – such as fishing licenses revoked for no apparent reason being one of many ploys.

Jane’s own family story is initially one of success that mirrors many other families. Success built on hard work, intelligence, humility, love of family and of their country, Canada.

All these years later, with some research and the help of her two brothers, Jane has mostly pieced together the family history – their parents, like many others infused with a culture of forbearance, simply never spoke of their early experiences. 

“The only time I remember my father referring to it was when a friend asked why he wasn’t bitter. That was the price I paid. Look at my three children, he replied proudly.”

George Yoshinori Ikeda was born in 1899, raised in Vancouver and followed in his father’s profession as a fisherman. When Jane and I notice a photo of him sitting at a desk while still a young man, Jane seems pleased that perhaps at one time he might have studied.

“He married well,” Jane reveals as we gaze at her family in a 1941 photo. Her brother is two, she, just a baby in her mother’s arm. None could know the tragedies that would unfold later that year. 

“After several suitors were presented to the Okimura family, my father was accepted to marry my mother, Itsuko. Years later, I was happy to learn that her family was from the Samurai class,” she says, referring to the hereditary nobility and warrior class of medieval and early modern Japan.

From the mid 1700s, the Okimura ancestry includes a samurai warrior. He would have commanded 10 to 15 foot soldiers and been able to read and write, even take on a surname. Historically, as with some cultures, common folk were known by their occupations. Okimura means, towards the sea, perhaps signifying that the Samurai had chosen to live close by the shore.

All those years later, at the turn of the century, Mataichi Okimura emigrated to Canada where his daughter would marry George, a man who also felt at home on the sea.

“My mother had been born here, but was sent back to Japan to care for her grandmother. Her English was always poor,” Jane confides, “even though she returned to Canada at 16 and helped start a family business as a seamstress. She married my father and, as was common at the time, she was taught to self-sacrifice, to obey her husband and her sons. Everything she did was for us. And reflection was not in her lexicon.”

“My parents were a good team,” Jane continues with emotion. “At the time of my birth they owned several fishing boats, three houses and seventeen lots in Steveston outside of Vancouver. We were well-to-do. Yet later when we had absolutely nothing, we always had love.”

The Ikeda’s descent into poverty through their loss of freedom, the stripping of their liberties, and eventual incarceration, began as it did for the majority of Canadians of Japanese ancestry and for the newly arrived Japanese on the Pacific Coast. As the war entered its second year, racial discrimination, partly driven by the commercial success of the Nikkei, entered the next phase.

“It was the kind of resentment that slumbers, then awakens,” one assistant to then Prime Minister Mackenzie King admitted. King began to ‘soft-peddle’ racial policies, culminating in the use of the War Measures Act by Decree. The government of British Columbia also began a campaign to rid their province of Nikkei. When Pearl Harbour was bombed by Japanese forces on Dec. 7th1941, it appears that some commentators of the time reflected that ‘it seemed heaven-sent’. As Canadians, we would perhaps prefer to believe that the government made rash decisions as they reacted in haste, that perhaps they didn’t realize the injustice and suffering their policies would cause. Tragically, the response was planned and carried out with precision… all perfectly legal in the eyes of the law at the time.

Canada and her allies were now at war with Japan, and even as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police counselled the government that the Nikkei were peaceful and posed no threat, the expulsion campaign began. Even though 63% of the Nikkei were Canadian born, fanned by sensationalist press and widespread racism, almost 1200 fishing boats were impounded. Japanese newspapers and businesses were shuttered. 

Prime Minister Mackenzie King issued his Orders-in-Council under the War Measures Act on Feb. 24, 1942, ‘to remove all persons of Japanese origin from the Pacific Coast.’ A slogan of the time, perpetrated by MP Ian Mackenzie in British Columbia, demanded ‘No Japs from the Rockies to the sea,’. All Japanese Canadians were required to register. And then, the men were the first to go.

Part Two

Jane was a small baby when her father was removed from his home and business. Like many other men, George was designated to spend his captivity in hard labour.  He was sent to work on a road crew, while others were packed off to farms or railways. In deplorable living conditions, George helped construct – with only hand tools – the Hope to Princeton highway, now part of Highway 3. Any man who begged to stay with his family or resisted these enforced labour conditions, was sent to a POW camp on the other side of the country – a large orange target on the back of his work clothes. “Where would we have escaped to?” quipped one survivor.

Jane’s eyes, and mine, fill with tears when she tells me that everything they owned was then appropriated by the government… the houses, boats, the plots of land. I can only imagine the anguish and uncertainty of signing the document that stated all would be returned after the war, or so they were promised; law abiding citizens still trusted their government. And yet, that was only the beginning.

Meanwhile, the BC Security Commission had prepared large exhibition buildings at Hastings Park for a temporary clearing site. With many given only 24 hours to pack, Itsuko was also given the order to take only what she could carry, a pair of suitcases, her two children, and join the thousands being herded into Hastings. Indeed, it had been a cattle and horse barn; the stench and filth still fresh in survivors memories all these years later. Lack of water or proper washroom facilities, poor food, the spread of disease, families separated… for any mother, the thought of young children in that environment is unimaginable. Without knowing their fate, confinement lasted for months. And on top of this they carried the burden of not knowing the conditions their husbands were facing, or even knowing whether they were alive. This was known as the First Uprooting.

By September of 1942, the peak of those simultaneously interned at Hastings is almost 4000, though 8000 were processed in total. Meanwhile, the federal and provincial  governments had deemed all Nikkei a national security threat and conjured an idea for all of those abandoned mining ghost towns in the Kootenay region of BC. Soon trains trundled the detainees to mountain towns like Kaslo, Slocan, Lemon Creek, New Denver, Greenwood, Sandon. Others were offered the option of back-breaking working on sugar beet farms in Alberta and Manitoba where they were permitted to keep their family intact. 

Itsuko and her two children were forcibly removed to a prison camp outside of Hope BC. Many women and children initially lived in tents while the shacks were hastily built – each 14 by 28 ft which two families shared. With her husband already exiled to a road camp, the young mother would find a way to survive the so-called Tashme camp. “The conditions were brutal,” Jane’s brother Edward is quoted as saying. He is the older brother in the photo and recalls his mother receiving a jar at regular intervals, filled with the paltry wages his father earned for building BC’s Highway 3. 

It is at this point in our conversation that I find myself truly at a loss for words and struggling to comprehend. I learn that with their bank accounts frozen by the government, the captive Nikkei were forced to pay for their own food, blankets, clothing and even for building supplies to make some semblance of comfort out of the shacks they had been forced to live in.

“Even hardened criminals don’t have to pay for their own imprisonment,” I read time and time again from camp survivors.

Like Itsuko, Nikkei women had no choice but to become the mainstay of their families. If they were fortunate, their meagre diet was supplemented by food items gleaned from other sources. “My mother never complained,” Edward is quoted as saying. “She was a capable woman. She sewed my pants, shirts, and knitted.” Itsuko, Jane and Edward were eventually moved from Tashme to the New Denver camp.

I visited the New Denver camp where the Nikkei Internment Memorial Centre pays homage to the internees. Nestled in the soaring, soulful Selkirk mountains, the concentration camp comprised some 300 wood shacks built and occupied by the internees from 1942 to 1949. Having stood almost reverently in one of the family-shared shacks, I could envision only too well the harsh conditions and the years of suffering. There had been a school, a temple, sport teams, a Japanese garden, and an ofuro – a communal bathhouse. Yet the artefacts are haunting and telling. On display are items from home and of their life of freedom, mixed amongst the more practical and prosaic. As with other places of hardship I’ve visited, I am reminded of the deep resources a woman draws upon for the survival of her family.

I ask Jane if she has visited the Nikkei Centre, or the Japanese Canadian Museum at the former Langham Hotel in Kaslo, another poignant site dedicated to ensuring that this episode of Canadian history is not forgotten. Approximately 1100 Canadians were imprisoned in the village of Kaslo of whom the museum points out that they ‘turned frustration and sorrow into new and honourable lives.’

“I won’t go,” she says emphatically. “I’m not introspective. I never look backwards.”

This is in fact the strength of the Nikkei, to move forward with dignity and resolve. Even as the government breached its promise by permanently appropriating property and subsequently selling it at rock-bottom prices, they persevered and found a way forward.

In 1945, Jane’s family was reunited, then displaced to Picture Butte, Alberta. Although the war had ended, unlike the US government, neither property, nor rights (including the right to return to the Pacific coast) were restored to Japanese Canadians. 

The Canadian government now gave the internees two options. Move east, at least 100 miles inland from the coastline of BC, or ‘repatriate’ to Japan. Many of course had never been to Japan, didn’t speak the language, nor had any desire to go to a land they didn’t consider to be their own. And so, compounding the tragedy of the past four years, with many now destitute, having lost their businesses and homes, the Nikkei now scattered themselves across Canada to start again. Some 4000 took the government’s offer and boarded a ship to a faraway, war-torn land called Japan. Of those who took that option, many found themselves in the limbo of being shunned first in one place and then in another.

Jane shows me a photo of the shack the Ikeda the family lived in once they moved to the prairies of Alberta. “More like a kind of chicken-coop,” she says. Then about five, Jane has some recollections of this time. “It’s not pleasant, but I remember how everything froze-up in the outhouse, everything…” 

There are some seemingly carefree images from this time. Jane and friends in summer dresses squinting into the sunshine, and bundled up in snowsuits in the winter. Other family members also move to the small farming community where Jane’s father and an uncle become builders. It is here that another brother is born.

In April of 1949, all restrictions on Japanese Canadians are finally revoked. In 1951, the Ikeda family returns to Vancouver, to no properties or jobs, to start again. The family takes temporary lodging at a hotel, then a boarding house until the family buys a house on Killarney Street. Photos of it boast profuse cherry and apple trees, smiling faces as life moves on.

Yet I’m saddened to hear Jane tell me, “It was a little shack of a house. A lean-to was built on the side for me, damp and covered with black mold.” I ask how her mother coped, whether they spoke of the hardships. “Never, not once,” she tells me. It’s here that Jane reminds me, ‘we were poor, but wealthy with love.”

George Yoshinori Ikeda, initially provided for his family as a handyman and gardener, then as a janitor at the less than salubrious Niagara Hotel. He retired at the age of 83.

Itsuko returned to dress making, working in a shop on Alma Street, often stitching into the evenings at her own kitchen table.

“She stitched beautiful wedding gowns, but I don’t think she was paid well enough. Even now, I can see the elegant white fabrics against the humble background. We never ate at the kitchen table, it was always draped in white.”

Itsuko Okimura Ikeda, resourceful, brave and proud as any Samurai warrior, died at the age of 96.

As I pour the last of the tea, Jane tells me that, besides the love of her parents, she has had two ‘graftings’ that have helped her become who she is today. “I stripped away things that hurt me, I created a cocoon that stunted my fragile tree… forever stunted, but over-reaching.”

“The first graft was encouraged by Ms. Elliott, my high school councillor. She told me I had the intellect to go to university and helped arrange scholarships. Even as I slept in a moldy lean-to and was poor, I knew I could solve it with my mind.” 

It was while completing a degree at UBC that Jane came upon the deeds to the Ikeda family properties. 

“And still I trusted the government and wrote a letter with the deeds enclosed, there were no photo copies. I sent them off feeling my family was owed some compensation.”

No reply, or compensation ever came. In fact it wouldn’t be until 1988 that the Canadian Government formally apologized and a redress payment was made. Some 1800 internees had died from diseases, many had passed away, the 13,000 remaining survivors were each paid $21,000. Additional funds were paid to a community fund.

Jane earned her degree in 1964, then taught in Trail BC. 

“I moved to Alberta to learn how to ski. I met Mike while both teaching at Western Central High School in Calgary. We married in 1972. Mike became a Commanding Officer, eventually we moved here to Kimberley where we’ve bought and sold many homes. We live a good, active life.”

“And this is where my second graft comes in,” Jane continues. “A friend of mine could see beyond the cocoon to my fragile self. She saw there was massive pain at the heart of my dwarfing… that I’ve been so busy obliterating my past.”

As we browse again through the photo album and finish the conversation, Jane admits that she’s never paid much attention to it. 

“My Uncle Arthur gave it to me. It’s his artistic handwriting; he never married and took time to pay attention to his nieces and nephews.”

I tell Jane what a tangible poignant gift it is and ask about the photograph of the lush tree in bloom.

“It was a Queen Anne cherry. I never liked it much since I preferred Bing cherries, sweeter and more prized as you had to buy them. I guess even then when you’re dirt poor, you put monetary value on things…”

“Are you more at peace?” I ask Jane.

“Oh sure,” she admits, yet something she mentioned earlier lingers. 

“I’ve heard it said that certain races such as the Japanese and the Jewish carry around pain. When you carry pain, you live through your ego. To live in the now, you must accept and acknowledge your past, appreciate the present as it is.”

As Jane leaves the comfort of my office for her walk in the moody September morning, it’s my fervent wish that her family’s story and the painful history of those other fellow Canadians be told and shared widely so that we never forget.

One last photo speaks to me as I begin to write that morning. It is of a school room in Southern Alberta in 1949, the year in which their rights as Canadian citizens were reinstated. Jane is sitting behind three other girls in the first row, smiling with her classmates. The other children of Japanese heritage were likely also from families sent to work in the sugar beet fields. What strikes me is how normal this scene is, as well it ought to be, and perhaps how oblivious the other children were to what their classmates had endured. A reminder that we must know and teach each generation the past.

I close the photo album of Yoshiko Jane Ikeda – a strong, contemplative woman with a complex identity, now able to claim her past. As she bravely confided, “I’m ready to put a face to my story…”

Glamping Under a Fabled Elm… Serene and Soulful Kaslo

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  • Glamping Site Three and Four, Kaslo, British Columbia
    • N49 Degrees, W116 Degrees, Altitude 591 Metres

Every small town has its story, its treasures, perhaps its aching past. With its serene beauty nestled along Kootenay Lake, we chose Kaslo for our next glamping spot for all of those reasons.

I couldn’t have anticipated that we’d be sheltered under the grandeur of one of the town’s treasures – a magnificent more-than-century-old elm tree – at Kaslo’s Municipal Campground.

Situated at the end of Front Street, Kaslo’s main street, only a narrow road separates the campground from the indigo waters of Kootenay Lake. The narrow fjord-like lake divides the Selkirk and Purcell mountain ranges. As one of the largest in BC, the lake is a traditional waterway to the Sinixt and Ktunaxa peoples. Once part of their seasonal migration and trading route, Kootenay Lake is now more likely to be arrayed with kayaks, canoes, paddle boards and sailboats than traditional birch bark canoes.

We were fortunate to be offered the elm site, its outspread branches like an expansive umbrella protecting her, and us, from the intense but glorious summer heat. As with previous campsites our canvas tent, named Lupin, only just squeezed under the tree’s majestic leafy canopy.

Lupin and the elm quickly became the darling of the campsite. “What’s it like inside? How long does it take to set up? Looks like a movie set, especially with that tree.”

And a comment that really intrigued me. “Have you heard the history behind the elm?”

We noticed what looked like a graft on the tree, as if two trees had merged into one. I was even more curious when our campground hostess revealed that Lupin was pitched under a Camperdown Elm, a name has nothing at all to do with camping. In fact, the ulmus glabra camperdownii’s history is firmly rooted in Scotland.

Around 1840, in the grounds of Camperdown House near Dundee, a young forester made a discovery. David Taylor worked for the Earl of Camperdown and on a jaunt in the woods discovered a young contorted elm tree. Taylor speculatively grafted it onto a larger Wych Elm in the Earl’s estate garden. As the years passed, the twisted yet elegant branches formed into a vast, lush canopy. The tree and those that derived from it became a status symbol, satisfying a mid-Victorian passion for curiosities in ‘Gardenesque’ style gardens. Eventually they graced the gardens of stately American universities and it seems Kaslo’s camperdown elm made its way to Canada from across the border.

Arriving in town in 1893 with Mr. C.W. McAnn, Kaslo’s first solicitor, the tree was just a two-foot high treasure and planted at his residence on 5th and Avenue B. In 1910, Charles F. Caldwell moved the elm to his home in Upper Kaslo, only for it to be dug up thirty years later by A.F. McPhee. McPhee envisioned it as a shelter at the fish hatchery and it there it remained, even as the hatchery evolved to become part of Vimy Park that eventually surrounded the campground.

The elm as it stood at the hatchery, circa 1950’s

In Kaslo, the presence of the elm is said to reflect the perseverance and strength of the community. And, as we strolled the charming streets, I was reminded that this was a place where resilience came very much into play – the serene mountains and majestic views belying darker episodes in its history. Yet Kaslo is also a town of welcoming verandahs and profuse gardens, of tinkling wind chimes and wide rambling streets; fondly proclaimed as the Lucerne of the Kootenays.

The town’s roots harken back to 1889, first a sawmill site, then rapid expansion due to a silver boom. When, in the early 1890’s, a 120 ton galena boulder was discovered nearby, the massive lode of silver and lead beckoned prospectors and speculators. Many arrived flat broke – some left as newly minted millionaires in only a matter of years.

Dozens of silver mines traverse this area and by 1893 Kaslo was a boomtown with a population of 3000, the fifth largest settlement in British Columbia. As with many mining towns, along with the more dignified settlers and ladies in finery, a more salacious wild atmosphere prevailed that catered to miners – gambling, saloons and brothels. Much of that new money flowed south to Spokane, Washington where mansions of the silver barons stand still today.

The unbelievable wealth came to a crashing halt as the price of silver plummeted. Businesses shuttered, banks foundered, and depression ensued. The final blow came in 1894 when a ravaging flood, then a devastating fire brought the town to its knees. Yet despite a large decrease in the population, the town didn’t fade away. The great number of ghost towns in British Columbia attest to the many that did. 

Kaslo holds onto this past in the form of elegant buildings, spired churches, frontier-like storefronts, perhaps best embodied in the oldest intact passenger steam vessel of its type in the world. The S.S. Moyie carried passengers on Kootenay Lake for fifty-seven years. Now dry-docked, refurbished and an impressive tourist site, fondly referred to as the ‘sweetheart of the lake’, she pays homage to the vital role that sternwheelers played in mountain regions.

‘She pulled in and blew her whistle like a trusted old friend – there weren’t yet roads to these mountain communities,’ is one quote I read. The S.S. Moyie carried everything from fruit to sheep, from locomotives piece by piece, to automobiles and passengers; some of very little means and those few who could indulge in the refinement of a state room.

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I’ve also heard Kaslo referred to as ‘one of the prettiest towns in British Columbia’… quiet charm in soulful surroundings. For me its sublime and soulful setting on the shore of Kootenay Lake is heightened by knowledge of the towns profound history as one of numerous sites where Japanese Canadians were interned during World War Two. The story of how these Canadian citizens were grievously wronged deserves to be told, it is a story of pain and loss and yet also of resilience and triumph of the human spirit. Of this I will devote a full blog soon.

We canoe and paddle board, and even have the good fortune, by happenstance, to sail the waters with friends. In such moments I gaze out towards the layered mountain ranges and hope that this serene view offered solace for those who had been interned and cut off from previous lives, for those whose tribal lands had been sequestered in the expansion of Canada, for those who arrived in Canada from afar – and perhaps even a fleeting thought for those who hadn’t realized their fortune in the ephemeral silver boom.

Early each morning we enjoy our coffee, lakeside. The rising sun glints on the carpets of green pines, the peaks with already-snowy-wraps, the gentle rippling of the waters. I hear the great cawing and flapping of the resident crows and the odd splashing of trout. I feel glacial-deposited pebbles on bare feet. I savour the moment.

I muse on how edifying and giving these glamping experiences have been. How they’ve helped define our summer, enabled us to explore in our own backyard and spend more meaningful time together.

Ambling along the shoreline, pebbles in autumnal arrays seem to hint at the approaching change of seasons. And in all of us, perhaps an overwhelming feeling of gratitude, especially during this pandemic… a reminder to savour the simple moments.

As I return to the campsite, the morning shadows are dancing beautifully on Lupin…

Sanctuary At A Lavender Farm… “The journey is the treasure”

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Last summer, on the island of Hvar Croatia, I swooned for lavender. As the sun lowered in the late afternoon sky, rich orange hues danced on field upon field of profuse purple stems. As far as the eye could gaze, we were entranced by the island’s signature crop in bloom – the view, the scent, was simply intoxicating, a moment etched on my traveller’s heart.

On a fine summer day this past week, once again I wonderfully found myself surrounded by heavenly lavandula, but this time it would be a hands-on experience. We had been invited to help harvest, so ‘the girls’ and I drove west from Kimberley, through the old mining town of Moyie, past the quaint stop at Yakh where you might just glimpse those roof-top goats grazing improbably above the Yakh Soap and Candle Co. Then onwards toward the Creston Valley, a veritable cornucopia of farmland, orchards and vineyards.

We started with an ‘obligatory’ wine tasting at the Baillie-Grohman Estate Winery, named for the Anglo-Austrian aristocrat who made his way to the valley in 1882. While on a hunting expedition with the future United States president, Teddy Roosevelt, the explorer saw the possibilities of the region. Granted a ten-year lease of almost 50,000 acres from the government, William Adolf Baillie-Grohman settled in the valley, creating a dyke system to reclaim fertile land from the Kootenay River, operating a steamboat to facilitate the passage of goods and settlers to the area, and he also found time to serve as Justice of the Peace for the Kootenay district.

More European settlers arrived to the area from the mid 1880’s and a general store, sawmill, clearing and planting of orchards soon followed. Today, the hillsides around the picturesque town of Creston are credited as the first to capitalise on the area’s potential for fruit bearing trees and, as we sample wine at the Baillie-Grohman Vineyard, there’s no doubt it’s the ideal first stop in the valley. Capturing the essence of the Creston valley, the row on row of grape vines cradled on the slopes of gentle mountains evoke serenity amidst the quiet productivity of the valley.

But we’re here for another delightful crop, lavender, and so we wend our way a little further north of Creston to Wynndel. Once dubbed the ‘strawberry capital of the world’, Wynndel now flourishes with livestock, dairy and hay farming. When we reach our destination for the afternoon, Sanctuary Lavender Farm, immediately we see that we are in a place of sanctuary, a haven of serenity, as if drawn into a canvas by Monet. I’m instantly transported back to Croatia, even to France, then at once I’m full of gratitude that this is in our own ‘backyard.’

We’re welcomed by Jade, the resident long-haired Siberian Forest cat, and her owners Kevin and Alanna. I had already read an article about the two lavender farmers. I was curious to learn why they had sold a successful business in a popular mountain town near Vancouver to take over a lavender farm. I was interested in the harvesting process and the products that they create. And, naturally, we were eager to start harvesting, and strangely excited to wield a scythe.

Alanna had sent a message after we had settled on the day and warned us that there might be mosquitos as we worked in the fields. And she added, “So before you say yes, I want you to know about that… but this is offset of course by the aroma and the peace, and the buzzing of our friendly bees.”

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Her description of the lavender farm she and Kevin bought almost three years ago summed it up succinctly. Yet until you’re standing amongst the rows and rows of lavender in bloom, the peace and serenity is difficult to convey. The plump bumble bees only compliment the living palette as they continuously buzz and busy on the lavender – part of nature’s cycle that we soon feel in tune with. With scythes handed to each of us, Kevin demonstrates how to take a small handful of lavender stems, cut carefully, repeat until a bunch is formed, secure with a band. As the bunches slowly grow and rest on the harvested lavender beds, bees buzz languorously, Jade slinks and suns herself, billowy clouds drift above, we savour deep breaths of lavender-lush air.

There are close to seven hundred lavender plants on the Sanctuary Farm; today we’re harvesting French lavender. An ancient flowering plant of the Lamiaceae, or mint family, the name lavender comes from the Latin word lavare meaning to wash given that it was commonly used by the Romans and in medieval Europe to scent water for washing clothes and for bathing. In Tuscany, it was used to ward of the evil eye. In ancient Egypt, lavender essential oil was one of many herbal oils used to preserve bodies for mummification; inexpensive, readily available, valued for its antibacterial properties.

Many of us well know the stress-relieving, calming properties of lavender, something I imagine Kevin and Alanna benefit from daily as they breathe in the atmosphere and soak in their tranquil setting.

“I still can’t believe I live here,” Alanna muses as we take a moment to gaze over the rows of lavender, and beyond. Rays of sunshine are dappling the late afternoon vista – tidy, diminutive knolls of purple against imposing emerald peaks.

As we’ve chatted, alongside one another, or scythed in silent harmony, an entire row has been harvested. It’s been over an hour and feels like a quarter of that. Countless bunches now await their placement into Kevin’s wagon where they’ll be trundled to the small drying shed. The French lavender will remain hanging, ‘bloom-side down’, for two weeks of drying. They’ll then be lovingly fashioned into Sanctuary’s retail products; candles and soaps, lavender wands and neck pillows, wreaths and sachets, or in their delightful elemental bunches. The products now grace local markets and stores in the Kootenay region and have become a go-to choice for gifts for many of us.

Laying down our tools, we gather on the shady terrace for a coffee and some lavender infused biscotti. The conversation meanders to Kevin and Alanna’s journey, of their transition to a slower-paced family life – their son Shem is with extended family this weekend.

“If you want to fly, you have to give up the ground you’re standing on,” Kevin says with the wisdom of a sage.

Even as their flower/event business in Squamish flourished, the couple reflect on their desire for more privacy and family time; they dreamt of making a change.

“We put our intention out to the universe, we wanted to be grounded with the senses,” the two explain.

“I had been perusing the real estate listings one evening.” Alanna continues, “we might have had Nelson in mind. Just as I was about to close my laptop, an ad for this property popped up. My heart started racing. I got tingles. The house and position on the slope of a hill was what we had aspired to. Oh, and then there was the lavender…”

There was still a business and a house to sell, their family split between two locations for a time as they transitioned. In time, it transpired into a home, a community and a lavender business they adore, Sanctuary Lavender Farm.

Kevin, originally from Sydney, Australia, chuckles that he’s gone from a flower shop to a lavender farm. As I take a photo of the two of them, Alanna wonders if her hair is alright. “You’re beautiful, just beautiful,” he says to his partner in life and business.

When Alana talks about their journey, she mentions that they both grew up with single moms.

“We drove a battered car and worked three jobs to open our flower shop.”

The couple radiate an intrinsic joy and calm spirt that seems to invite those around them to celebrate life. I hear one of them mention that the farm is like a botanical garden and can easily imagine the panoply of colours that play out as the seasons change.

As we finish our second session amongst the lavender, it’s difficult to pull ourselves away. Alanna shows me the lower beds. Ayla, Trixie and Jade pose for photos. Kevin has taken our precious bundles to be hung.

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Alanna I discuss a future collaboration, maybe a writing workshop amongst the blooms? She motions to the girls who are engaging Jade to pose for a photograph.

“How lucky are you to have those two lovely young ladies in your life… and they you,” she says. Of course I agree wholeheartedly.

It’s been a fabulous day spent together. How did Kevin put it earlier?

“The journey is the treasure.”

 

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Many photos contributed by Trixie Pacis at http://www.trixiepacis.com

 

 

Roaming Close to Home, part 2… of the Beginnings of Glamping

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This is part two of Roaming Close to Home

The decision to glamp began as a discussion on how to spend a milestone anniversary, something that blossomed into a way broader conversation. “How can we replace traveling for the time being?” “What if we take the basics of camping and spice it up a bit?” And from me, ever the amateur designer, “Oh exciting, I could have so much fun with this!”

Already, the rewards are ample.

We camped often when I was a child – rather a rite of passage in Canada – and we camped with our own children wherever we were living. We’ve slept in Arabian tents in Qatar and Oman – images of camels shuffling slowly past as the sun slips over the bronzed desert dunes. We’ve camped in the high country of West Texas – chancing upon ghost towns, sun-dried horns, fist-sized tarantulas and otherwordly cacti. We pitched a tent in the deeply etched valleys of Mangistau in Kazakstan – pinnacles rising like citadels, a landscape unique and ethereal.

And it was through camping that we introduced Canada to our boys, happily armed with kayaks and canoes as our ‘toys’ – encountering the odd foraging bear, the loon’ s lyrical calls at sunset, the evocative drift of campfire smoke as stars twinkled above.

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Glamping Site One* ‘The Farm’ in Southern Alberta

N 49.78, W 112.15 degrees, Altitude 815 metres

 

With the decision to glamp agreed upon and the tent acquired, the first ‘glampsite’ to host Lupin – the name given to our Sibley 500 tent on account of the way she gathers droplets of water like the leaves of a Lupin – was at my parent’s acreage, their once farm where we had been married all those years ago. Nestled beside a statuesque May Day tree and framed by mature pines, we immediately fell in love with the spacious, graceful lines of the tent, with the connection to nature while cocooned under the protection of canvas. A heart-warming anniversary celebration, time with family, and even a reshoot of one of our wedding photos – knee-deep in a canola field – we had come full circle to where it had all started.

For this first glamp, a world theme mostly developed in our new abode. Bed linens from India stamped with my beloved traveller’s palms paid homage to the last overseas country we had called home. The world vibe continued with lanterns illuminating Persian carpets, with delicate wicker weaves from Asia, with excellent UMAMU wine from a friend’s vineyard in Australia to mark the occasion.

And poignantly perfuming it all were lush, frilly peonies from my mother’s garden… a final and symbolic touch, almost as if my wedding bouquet was mirrored in these showy intoxicating blooms. Like my parent’s garden and homestead, they represented the grounding of home, hearth, and family.

In the early mornings, shadows played on Lupin’s walls as birdsong serenaded us awake. In the evenings, candlelight danced in evocative shadows as the hooting of owls called to us from nearby trees. One magical evening, we were treated to a brilliant symphony of light and sound as a thunderstorm rolled across the vast prairie sky. The boom and barrage of thunder, great flashes and streaks of lightening, and the rain – from the gentle pitter-patter of whispering raindrops to deep washes rollicking down Lupin’s sides.

Then the wind. The rattling of the door’s hefty zipper, the agitated sway of hanging lights, the plaintive rush of air through pines. Even under the protection of the canvas it felt like an open window to the outdoors, all senses awakened, nature’s forces rich and elemental.

With wine poured, books illuminated and wooly wraps to warm, I glanced towards my trusty fedora and knew that glamping was a gift. I doubt it is something we would have considered had we the liberty of still being able to travel at this time. Dare I say that it’s been another silver lining of Covid, almost an entreaty to embrace home and reach back to elemental simplicity, to feeling more rooted.

So it seems it all awaits. The lakes and woods, the bike trails and highways, the experiences and encounters, yet on this special occasion we were where we were meant to have been all along.

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Glamping Site Two* Larchwood Lake, British Columbia,

N 49.57, W 115.48 degrees, Altitude 882 metres 

 

A few weeks later, our first mountain glamp was indeed at one of those lakes we had scouted out on those joyous day trips. Larchwood Lake is just under an hour from home, and yet the feeling of being ‘away’ is complete. With a long stone’s throw to the lake, we find a spot nestled by lodgepole pines and a baby and mama pine tree that seem to guide our eye to the small, milky-blue lake beyond. At once, we’re conscious of Lupin’s substantial size. She barely squeezes into the camping spot, but with set-up complete (an hour and a half later) the picnic table and fire-pit become the perfect extension of our small enclave.

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This trip, it’s mostly about Canadiana and pieces that will be the basis of Lupin’s ‘retinue’, so to say. Over the past month or so, I’ve delighted in curating ‘glampanalia’ that are preferably a little vintage, reused, repurposed and definitely not plastic. So, plates and bowls of pressed bamboo, milk and water bottles of glass, enamelled basins of a certain age, cloth napkins and naturally the reliable old family axe. Wood and canvas chairs that can easily be moved inside or out were purchased new, but, for the most part, everything else has a story.

I started with a small foldable wicker table, reclaimed from my mother’s home it was the perfect option for a fireside table. A label fixed to the underside reminds us that we had used it camping back when we lived in Oman. Oh how that brings me joy!  

And I was fortunate to glean a number of collectibles from my parents. You’ll often find that people are only too happy to know that something, unused for years, will once again be cherished. A cast-iron frying pan, once my grandmother’s, was happily reconditioned by our youngest son and had its inaugural use this trip – the food couldn’t have tasted more delicious.

Procured from my father are his vintage binoculars purchased in Hong Kong while on a late ’60’s cruise to the Far East, and the warmest of Mexican blankets from a trip in 1965. I consider it a privilege that they’ll once again be used, treasured for years, and eventually passed on once again. And the lambskin? Years ago, a dear family friend gifted it to me, pleased that I would use it in my new mountain home. Sadly, Carol passed away recently, but I’d like to think she’d be thrilled that her lambskin is part of our glamping essentials.

I’ve also come across some items that are true Canadiana. When I spotted the wicker hamper in our local collectable boutique – Old Crow Emporium – I knew it was ideal for a storage chest. And oh how I wish it could tell me its storied past! With thick rope handles and stitching of animal sinew, its worn-smooth wicker speaks to a settler’s journey.

IMG_4944It’s also at Old Crow that I discovered the weathered wooden paddle and the well-used fishing basket, a creel. The creel now serves as a repository for old maps of the local area.

And I’m particularly pleased with the Beacon lanterns gifted to me by those astute kids of ours. Beacons were primarily used for signalling on the railways, produced from 1927 onwards by General Steel Wares. The Canadian company graced their lanterns with names such as Cold Blast, Dashboard, Searchlight and the Planet Hot Blast, each proudly marked ‘Guaranteed Wind Proof.’ I picture them swinging from a station master’s hand or perched in a caboose, signalling and lighting the way in the dark of the night. Now, far less flammable with strings of battery-powered lights, even still they emit a warmth and historic bonhomie.

IMG_4687We’re welcomed at Larchwood Lake by campground hosts Jim and Lynne who clearly love their summer retirement job.

“This is our third year with Recreation Sites and Trails. How fortunate are we that we get to live onsite for four months!” the couple tell us as they welcome.

Donning green vests, broom at the ready, after dinner each evening the couple make their rounds, checking on the campers and welcoming newcomers. Jim and Lynne are friendly faces with an easy manner bringing a gentle order to each camper’s experience. As they collect our fee, I admit I’m rather pleased to receive my first ‘glamping receipt’ for a Recreation Site Permit – $28 for two evenings. We hear how much the campground has improved over the last few years, chat about the local flora and fauna and aren’t too surprised when we’re told that there hasn’t been a tent set-up like this before!

“Be sure to use the blue canoe over by the dock. Anytime at all,” they entreat us. But the next day we’re happily out on the lake with our paddle boards. We’ve long been kayakers, but there’s a special pleasure in communing with water and wildlife on a paddle board.

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We glide slowly along the water, surveying and revelling in the local habitat. Western Painted Turtles sun themselves on driftwood, then, startled, they dart under profuse pondweed. Wild flowers sprout along the sandy shore, rainbow trout are spotted, along with the odd garter snake. As we glide through reeds, straight and slender, dragonflies as blue as a Bombay Saphire Gin bottle dance around us. As their brilliance contrasts against the emerald reeds, I’m enthralled with what an idyllic platform for observation paddle boards are. That day, we go out twice!

We finish the second paddle session with, naturally, Bombay gin and tonics. With drinks poured, the cheese-board laid and wild flowers plucked, I jot down a few Glamping Moments. As trifling as they may seem, my glamping is all about enjoying the simple, yet slightly elegant pleasures, the natural beauty and the serene moments. Here’s Just a few…

  • finding the last ice in the deep recesses of the cooler for those G & T’s
  • butterflies flitting through camp
  • just gazing out to the lake
  • a chipped porcelain cup brimming with soft shades of whites, creams and yellow wildflowers – this site’s bespoke flower bouquet
  • the exuberance of kids playing on the lake
  • the delight of dogs launching themselves gleefully into the water
  • the rustle of the wind, shadows playing on Lupin
  • the great crackling of fire that just happens to help ward off the mosquitoes
  • campfire food, campfire Scrabble, campfire with my sweetheart

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Roaming Close to Home… of Legacies, Lakes & Lilacs, part one

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With a special occasion at the end of June, we decided to invest in a tent and go glamping to celebrate… searching for the perfect camping spot was underway. Our plan had been to be in Europe for this milestone anniversary, yet the silver lining of Covid 19 has been the opportunity to discover and appreciate our own backyard. For many people, travel restrictions within their own region, province or state has created virtues from that unprecedented necessity. For us, it means a summer where home is our playground.

After months of isolation, we cruised the open roads in search of the perfect glamping spot. We are spoiled for choice. From our home in Kimberley, the East Kootenay region in the southeastern corner of British Columbia is graced with countless lakes. We steeped ourselves anew in the beauty of this region where jagged mountain peaks of the Rockies rise in parallel with those of the Purcells, Selkirks and Monashee ranges, valleys giving way to crystal clear rivers and lakes. Places where wooden docks host fishing, suntanning, boating and starting points for kayaking and standup paddle boarding. Where adirondack chairs sit poised for the long, hot days of summer.

While searching for the lake of our choice, we meandered down well-travelled roads and bounced along dusty back-country tracks. Narrow roads where cattle graze under serrated, snow-capped mountain peaks, where an unexpected turn might lead to cascading waterfalls, abandoned gold rush towns or meadows overbrimming with wildflowers.

As we cruised the mountain roads that day in search of ‘our spot’, we took the time to stop and appreciate those sites we always promise to, but rarely take the time to do so. Perhaps a chance to marvel at the iconic bridge over the Kootenay River or that outdated, yet charmingly retro campground sign at Skookumchuck that has always caught my eye. Skookumchuck is an Indigenous word that means ‘strong waters’. In local parlance, if something is skookum, it’s strong, impressive, or cool.

And finally, after years of driving past a wooden statue of a local Indigenous Chief, we stopped to ponder the past. Following the retreat of ice age glaciers ten thousand years ago, the Kootenay area of British Columbia was inhabited by the Kutenai or the Ktunaxa [Tun-ah-ha] people. I was fortunate to meet with Ktunaxa elders a number of years ago. I heard their legends and stories, their hopes for the future, of how they had endured the insult and outrage of the colonial residential school system. The arrival of the colonials forever changed the course of the Ktunaxa people and that past is particularly on display in this area. St. Euguene’s Mission, a residential school opened in 1890, still occupies their ancestral land. But today, St. Eugene’s is not only a hotel, casino and golf course, it stands proudly as a meeting place of reconciliation and healing.

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In the early 1800’s, David Thompson, an explorer for the Hudson’s Bay Company, journeyed through this basin on his exploration of the Kootenay and Columbia Rivers. Thompson soon established trade with the Ktunaxa who were hunters, fishermen, gatherers… stewards of these beautiful lands. In the late 1860’s, the Galbraith family secured land in the basin, not from the Ktunaxa but from the nascent Provincial government, ranching and setting up the settlement of Galbraith’s Ferry to capitalize on the burgeoning gold rush trade. Fur traders, missionaries and settlers followed in their footsteps.

The Ktunaxa soon witnessed the appropriation of their homeland. Eventually, the stalwart protector Chief Isadore would protest “that all grazing land should remain free for all people to use, that no man had the right to erect fences.” As vast tracts of the Ktunaxa’s land disappeared to the railway, to the government and the colonists, it was clear there would be no return. Chief Isadore petitioned that the land allocated to his people was “unfair and unequitable“. In 1888 Colonel Sam Steele, stationed at Galbraith’s Landing (later renamed Fort Steele), played a role in mediating, convincing, and undoubtedly placating Isadore to accept the de-facto property rights of the Ktunaxa Nation’s very own ancestral homeland.

Of Chief Isadore, in his memoir ‘Forty Years in Canada’, Steele writes, “Isadore was the most influential chief I have known. Crowfoot, the Blackfoot chief, or Red Crow, dare not, in the height of their power, have exercised the discipline that Isadore did.” But, despite his disciplined and principled stance, Chief Isadore could not turn back the tide of change.

While writing this piece, we happen to cycle the Chief Isadore Trail. It follows portions of the once Crowsnest Railway Line, through the lost small station at Mayook, and onto Cranbrook which partly serviced Kimberley’s North Star and Sullivan lead and zinc mines. The trail roams through grasslands, ponderosa pine forests and saltgrass prairies. The lofty Rockies stand majestically over us.

We pass by ample serviceberries or saskatoon berries, once so essential to the Ktunaxa. They were eaten fresh, as flavour for fish and meat, or dried for trading in the winter months. The bark of the shrub was used as an eyewash to treat snow blindness. The hard straight stems to make arrows, tipi pegs, pipes and spears. I can almost feel the presence of the impressive and dignified Chief (standing centre in bottom photo) as he surveyed the land, lamenting its loss, attempting to reconcile his people to the future.

Chief Isadore would eventually withdraw to a piece of land on the Kootenay River, allocated to him by the Provincial authorities. Devoting his last years to improving his farm, influenza attacked his people during the winter of 1893-94. Many of the elderly succumbed. Chief Isadore was among them.

As the Ktunaxa land was eagerly purchased by Canadian and European newcomers the settlement of the valley gained momentum. Notable was Colonel James Baker who named the town Cranbrook, after his family estate in England. Baker was closely allied with the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), who in 1898, successfully convinced them to establish the Crowsnest Railway line through Cranbrook rather than Fort Steele. Baker would go on to play a prominent role in the politics of the region. Cranbrook was incorporated as a city in 1905. Baker had returned home to England in 1900, leaving his townsite business to his son.

My brief relating of this history should be a gentle reminder of what the Ktunaxa have lost and of their suffering. Their vision today is one of a strong, healthy community that proclaims and celebrates their heritage. As a self-governing, thriving Nation working to revitalise their language and culture, they take a leading role in the stewardship of their land. And, as I look across the broad valley of the Rocky Mountain trench, my understanding of what has gone before helps me treasure all the more, the privilege of sharing this land.

Framed by the Rockies and vast blue skies, the city of Cranbrook’s colonial roots are very much on display. Edwardian architecture of brick and sandstone speak to the city’s development throughout the early 1900’s. Original surviving buildings of the CPR, now the Canadian Museum of Rail Travel, pay homage to ‘how the west was built.’ Striking heritage homes in the Baker Hill area, nestle close to where Baker himself settled on the hilled area to the south and east of downtown.

What we noticed most on that late spring day in June, were the lilacs – so many beautiful lilacs! Profuse in colour and in their intoxicating scent, lilacs often flank the entrance or front gardens of earlier buildings in Canada. Whether in towns or on homesteads, lilacs seem to represent home, stability, and have coloured the landscape for generations.

Originally known as philadelphus, supposedly after an Egyptian King, they’ve been interpreted in many ways throughout history. The Celts saw lilacs as magical because of their sweet scent. During the Victorian age, lilacs were a symbol of an old love—widows often wore lilacs during this time. In Russia, holding a sprig of lilac over a newborn baby was thought to bring wisdom. I like to think that that they are markers of the complexity of Canadian heritage and history – embodying the hopes and dreams of the settlers and homeowners who planted them.

But I am meandering in much the same way that we had roamed on our mission of finding the ideal lake for camping. In going out into the land we had taken the proverbial time to ‘stop and smell the lilacs’, time to become better acquainted with and to embrace the local history that surrounds us.

Indeed, the silver lining of Covid these past months was the licence to be near, to better know our own neighbourhood without venturing far, and in the end we would choose none of the lakes we came upon. We decided that our first glamping experience should be where it was meant to be all along… at my parents acreage where our own history is firmly rooted. There, it wasn’t lilacs in bloom, but gorgeous peonys to perfume and help christen our inaugural glamping experience. To be continued…

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Wintery Postcards from British Columbia…

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It’s a sunny winter’s day as I write from our home in Kimberley and I wish you all a very Happy New Year! My apologies for the delay in offering you my best wishes. I hope that 2020 brings joy and fulfilment for us all, but also much strength for what may come our way.

I’m ever-so thankful that our immediate family was gathered here to ring in the new decade… all of us under one roof for the first time in two years! In the midst of Christmas preparations, shopping, and champagne popping in the morning before gift opening… not to mention exuberant gaming, fireside chatting, mulled-wining and dining, I’ve also pondered on how much this location has shaped our family time this season.

We’ve hosted family and visitors from Vancouver, as well as long-lost friends from Australia, and in the messages penned in my well-worn guest book I read echoes of my own sentiments.

‘There is no shortage of love, laughs, and activities here in Kimberley.’

‘We’ve enjoyed so much of what makes Kimberley very special.”

”Kimberley is beautiful… I now know why you love it.’

Yet if you’ve followed me the past year through my musings… you’ll know that transitioning from India, and from a global life of thirty years, to a quaint Canadian mountain town has been a gradual process. But when I see our family and friends delight in what this friendly community has to offer, there’s a feeling of contentment and wonderment. I’m reminded of the many simple joys on our doorstep. As a good friend gently advised this past year… ‘Remember why you first came to this mountain haven and appreciate it for what it has, for the many ways that it can fulfil you, don’t rue what is missing.’ 

I’ve mused on that statement often… when I’ve missed the vibrant chaos of India, the lively piazzas of Italy, or the charm and colour of Malaysia. I appreciate that you might be reading this from your home in tropical climes, perhaps never having experienced cold and snow – today’s -15 degrees might be hard to fathom! This snowy landscape is indeed special, even a little mysterious, as messages from some of you have hinted.

Can winter be long, frightfully cold and dark? Yes, though thankfully this area is particularly sunny, even in the winter. Can the roads be treacherous and snow-clearing of driveways and decks a constant task? Yes again… but if you love winter, this is the place to come. Here, it’s all about the ample winter activities, the sweeping majestic scenery, and the simple vignettes of our frozen landscape.

I don’t always enjoy the cold, but appreciate it for for the landscape it faithfully sculpts each year. For the beauty, for the senses that are awakened, for the activities that the cold and snow provide. And the more we embrace this, the more I realise what a gift it is to welcome our family and friends into this winter oasis.

I’ve been mindful to soak up many of the simple pleasures over the past weeks and I’m delighted to share some wintery postcards with you. Call it the subtle art of finding shapes and patterns in nature, and just as no two snowflakes are the same, no two days are alike in winter. Footprints in the snow obscure with fresh falls, lines of a snow-angel soften from wind blown flakes, frozen lakes transform to skating rinks, ski hills are groomed and preened. Champagne powder piles high on rooftops, nestles on firewood stacks, bends the limbs of statuesque snow-laden pines, and obscures the green of nival flora. And the serene of quiet trails are guarded by frost-decorated trees.

Patterns also form uniquely in crystalline sculptures hanging from my front porch. Icicles inch steadily downwards here each winter as the temperature dips and climbs and melting snow drips slowly down translucent rods, frozen before the fall. I am fascinated by these natural sculptures of such intricate beauty.

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Beyond the gentle appreciation of nature, is the more active… snowshoeing, skiing – both cross and downhill – skating and yes, even snowman building! The joy of them all is the time shared with others, or spent in peaceful solitude. Whatever climate and landscape that you may find yourself in, I encourage you to find new ways to appreciate your surroundings. Savour the subtle, relish the dramatic, but if you’re yearning for a winter’s adventure, I know where you just might find it!

Wherever you may be, I wish you a beautiful beginning to the year and leave with you my favourite wintery postcards… Happy New Year dear readers!

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Snowshoeing at Trickle Creek Golf Course

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The View from the 11th hole – The Rockies are obscured

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Snowshoe to the Ridge at Dreamcatcher

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Looking out over Kimberley Alpine Resort

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The small Outdoor Skating Rink at the Resort

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Photo opportunity on the hill

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Clearing the snow on Wasa Lake

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A game of shinny on Wasa Lake

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The ‘gang’ on ice

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Fritz The Snowman

October on Prince Edward Island…

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“I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers.” Lucy Maud Montgomery

 

As we tour Prince Edward Island this is indeed my prevailing thought, but they are the words of the island’s most famous author, Lucy Maud Montgomery. Are they not precisely the sentiment that her beloved character, Anne, of Anne of Green Gables would exuberantly exclaim?

The island in October is simply stunning with hues in their autumnal glory, but it isn’t only the natural flora that wows. Whether in the cities, hamlets or countryside, the islanders truly delight in the season with elegant pumpkin-lined porches and flourishes of wreaths.

Prince Edward Island’s narrow roads wend through the forested and pastoral countryside – explosions of burnt reds, oranges, and golds line the way. Road signs suggest that you just might just be required to give way to a horse and carriage. The island does have that feeling of serenity, of simpler times, of history that lingers still.

My mom and I are first-time visitors this far east in Canada. It’s the ideal time to visit this ‘Garden of the Gulf’, yet be forewarned, many sites have already closed for the season. As the smallest province of Canada, PEI is a graceful canvas of quaint harbours, colourful bait shacks, tidy homesteads and lush agricultural land. It produces 25% of the nations potatoes, complimenting its fisheries, tourism, aerospace, bio-science and renewable energy endeavours.

It wasn’t too long after crossing the Confederation Bridge to the island that we chance upon Victoria by the Sea. With its squat lighthouse – traditional white, trimmed red – the small harbour town welcomes with a hearty bowl of seafood chowder, local crisp white wine, and glimpses into a fisherman’s daily life. Ropes, nets, buoys, and boats are at the ready for forays out to sea.

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In the summertime, the small harbour would be astir with visitors. Now we wander happily along the quiet streets and chance to meet Ben. Positioned just across from the lighthouse, this artisan moulds candle holders from the iron-red sandstone and clay of the island. The light glimmering from Ben’s tiny studio brightens up the gloomy October afternoon.

“This was once a healing house,” Ben tells us. “In the early years, diphtheria took many lives. Instead of going to the sanatorium, if a family had the means, they’d build a small cottage on the property for their loved one’s isolation… and hopefully recuperation.”

Ben’s perch has a view of the quaint wharf and the water, he finds it peaceful… just the way he likes it. Happily posing for a photograph with my mom, he gives us a few pointers for the island. “Don’t forget to say hi to Anne,” he says with a friendly laugh. “She keeps the tourists coming!”

After time in Nova Scotia, we’re touring for four days and chancing upon the unexpected, meeting locals, is very much part of the journey. Ben’s friendliness is matched time and time again in the days ahead.

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“The legend is that the island was formed by the Great Spirit placing on the Blue Waters some red crescent-shaped clay. We called it Epekwitk – cradled by the waves.” The Mi’kmaw, First Nations

The accent of many islanders hints at their roots, of the vast number of Scottish, English, Irish and Acadians who settled. Yet long before this time, the Mi’kmaw First Nations thrived on the island they called Epekwitk – the long pristine beaches, sand dunes and red sandstone cliffs inspiring their creation story.

IMG_0403I was fortunate to meet Bernie – not long after leaving the island –and I consider it an honour to have met this proud, compelling elder of the Mi ‘kmaw nation.

Gathered one evening around a blazing campfire, Bernie Francis greeted our writing group in the tradition of a powwow. With a healing drum and the gift of cedar, tobacco, sweetgrass and sage, Bernie’s soulful tunes wafted over us, spiritually connecting us to the land, to traditions, to storytelling.

The reverence for his nation’s people, who once moved with the rhythm of seasonal hunting and gathering, was palpable. We felt enveloped in a honeycomb of stories, heritage and soulful lyrics. As a Mi’kmaw elder, Bernie exemplifies the keeper of wisdom and traditions bestowed upon him.

As a linguist, he helped design the now official orthography, the writing of his people’s language. There had not been one, and this achievement earned him honorary doctorates and grateful accolades. Leaving home, and the country at 14, Bernie would eventually return in later life to work as a Director of the Court Worker Program, ensuring fair and just treatment of his people. His accomplishments are many, yet around the campfire that evening as Bernie serenaded us in Mi’kmaw, Spanish, and English, he taught us the gentle art of humility and generosity. For me, our evening with Bernie was the apogee of my trip.

Back in Charlottetown, I learn about the irrevocable change for the Mi’kmaw people. In 1763, The British, claiming dominion over the Maritimes, called the land St. John’s Island. Then a name change to Prince Edward Island, in honour of the fourth son of King George III, Prince Edward the Duke of Kent, Commander-in-chief of British troops, North America.

Hostilities grew as the island was soon divided into a mere 67 lots of properties – allocated to the King’s supporters by means of a lottery, most were absentee. Prince Edward was the father of Queen Victoria and in the course of her long reign, many more were encouraged to settle here, though the French were the first colonial settlers in Charlottetown.

In 1720, not far from the present-day city at Port La Joye, they staked their settlement bringing along Acadian settlers. Some forty years later, it was besieged by the British and renamed Charlottetown after the King’s consort. Then followed the tragic, wrongful expulsion of the Acadian settlers by the British –  an indelible stain in Canadian history.

Today, Charlottetown is widely remembered as the birthplace of confederation, where meetings and negotiations took place to discuss the forming of the nation – official on July 1, 1867. Paradoxically, Prince Edward Island declined to give up its status a colony of Britain, declining to join the fledgling union. Soon, it would be the railway that sealed the bargain.

“The railway moved mourners to funerals, brides to weddings, brass brands to picnics, hockey teams to tournaments. It got farmers’ produce to market, children to boarding schools… Islanders moved and mingled to the whistle of the train.” A signboard near Charlottetown’s first train station of 1907 

For many, before the railway came to Prince Edward Island, one could live ten miles from another village and barely know it existed. In 1871 this changed dramatically as railway branch lines slowly criss-crossed the island. Yet with too few passengers, too little freight, too many stops (every few miles) and unable to pay the debt, the colony faced bankruptcy. In 1873, Prince Edward Island reluctantly agreed to become Canada’s seventh province – the new nation would assume the island’s railway debts. Not only did this create jobs to compliment the long established fishing economy, railway coincided with the rise of shipbuilding and new wealth from shipping and timber.

The charming streets of Charlottetown attest to this. Perhaps a grand mansion such as Beaconsfield, its rooftop glass belvedere viewing out to the sea, its wealth of William Morris wallpaper speaking to its privileged past. Or wander the walkable streets and admire simpler homes, their facades in heavenly painted shades, their heritage and names proudly on display. I revel in the rich architectural past and their various styles – Georgian, Greek Revival, Italianate, simple Island Ell and Four Square – each with their own unique elegance.

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“It’s delightful when your imagination comes true, isn’t it?” Lucy Maud Montgomery

Back into the countryside, it was time to make our way to the ‘Anne of Green Gables’ house in Cavendish. As a writer, I wanted to know more about the author who created the spunky, loveable Anne Shirley. What had inspired Montgomery? Was the setting for her inspiration as beautiful as portrayed in her books. If you haven’t watched the current CBC series, Anne with an E… I simply implore you to do so!

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The drive from Charlottetown to Cavendish provides another showcase for the island’s beauty, but the town itself disappoints. With not much more than the church where Montgomery once played the organ, the small post office (already closed for the season) and the local cemetary the attraction is the home of a relative where Montgomery spent much of her time. The setting does feel like a storybook and it’s clear why she felt such a deep connection to the landscape. Embraced in the Cavendish community, Lucy was raised with a love for natural beauty… for the woods, the fields, the shores. Her imagination transformed it into a vivid, fictional world.

From the age of fifteen, the author began submitting poems, essays and stories. She partly credited fireside storytelling for her gift, ‘the romance of them in my blood.’ Despite the constrained expectations of women in the Victorian era, Montgomery was independent and strong-minded. She went away to Dalhousie University, became a school teacher, habitually rising early to write before class. After years away from home, she returned to care of her ill grandmother who ran the Cavendish post office from the kitchen of her own home.

It once stood near the present Cavendish post office, and the often lonely and dispirited young author discreetly sent out submission after submission from the humble surroundings. The manuscript of Anne of Green Gables, once stored away in a hatbox and safe from further rejection, was finally accepted on the sixth try. Published in 1908 to wide acclaim, it was an instant success. Lucy never shied away from the issues – the emancipation of women, freedom of speech, the struggle of identity, even the colonial treatment of the Mi ‘kmaq.

Anne Shirley’s adventures continued in numerous books – even as Montgomery struggled with her own depression and that of her husbands, a preacher, who ministered near Toronto. The author was stricken with the Spanish flu and almost died in 1918, afterwards almost divorcing her husband for his uncaring treatment. Difficult to obtain in Canada until 1967, Lucy ultimately decided against a divorce believing it was her Christian duty to make her marriage work. She returned to her beloved island as often as she could.

Awarded an OBE, many other awards, she is one of the most prolific authors in Canadian history. Upon her death 1942, Lucy Maud Montgomery was buried in Cavendish, the place she had always loved and that had given her so much inspiration.

As I wander the grounds, a single bus load of tourists from Japan is soaking up the surroundings, reminding me that from the outset Lucy enjoyed an international following and this continues today. Indeed, I get a true sense of the writer and her muse… this evocative place that she called home.

 

“On a cold day a winter sleigh ride and a picnic to survey the land for the best placement of the island’s first lighthouse. 13 miles across the frozen bay… basket lunches of bread and cheese, and fortifying wine was consumed by all.” Historical notes, March 31st, 1840

 

I had this one last destination in mind, Prince Edward Island’s oldest lighthouse. After all, I had been ‘collecting lighthouses’ throughout this trip. With the wind whipping up the waves and cold air biting, I venture out into the Atlantic wind to savour the lighthouse up close. My mom wisely remains in the warmth of the vehicle, as I peer up, then out, and around, to fully appreciate this vital structure.

Once the location for Point Prim Lighthouse had been determined by the surveyors that freezing day in 1840, it ended five years of petitioning, planning and funding. Simply put, as Charlottetown grew and shipping traffic increased, shipwrecks were piling up along the rugged shores. Merchants and fishermen often faced ruin and loss of life. Between 1770 and 1845, up to 100 ships had foundered in the island’s waters. The traditional bonfires at a harbours entrance now no longer sufficed.

As I guard myself against the roar and the spray of the ocean, I spare a thought for the lighthouse keepers. Their job was often one of loneliness and danger, but also of meaningful industriousness. The keeping of logs to record weather patterns, the buffing of the lights copper reflectors and the gleaming of salt-sprayed windows. And the summer months of tending gardens, farms and fish traps. Their names are recorded for posterity at many of the lighthouses and here at Point Prim, their contribution to the community is poignantly mentioned… ‘those enduring contributions.’ It strikes me that here on Prince Edward Island, community is and has always been the bedrock of this intriguing, compelling land.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A ‘Come from away’… feeling at home in Peggy’s Cove

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The Buoy Shop owner tilts his flat cap ever so slightly as he considers my question.

“Well now, you must be a come from away – not from these parts – if you’s asking that. Different buoys you know, have different purposes.”

Roger is seemingly drowning in buoys. They dangle in nets and perch in the crooks of his aged bait shop – shades of blues, turquoises, oranges and faded reds.

“See this small one here, it’s carved from Portuguese cork. Those net floats there, they help catch the fin fish.” Roger’s sliver mustache curls into a smile when I ask how long he’s been a fisherman.

“I’m fifth generation, my children are six. These days, it’s more lobster fishing, but it was once more cod and haddock.”

Once I’ve browsed and chosen a handcrafted wooden buoy, Roger offers some advice. Shoving his large, calloused hands into the pockets of his checked flannel jacket, he cautions me. “You’ve come on a nice day, but yous be sure to stay off those black rocks. They get slippery and we don’t want to be fishing you out of the sea.’’

Roger and his Buoy Shop are an institution in Peggy’s Cove. Now, gazing out over the steamship-sized inlet, one gets a sense of time standing still, of maritime heritage preserved and presented to perfection.

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Crab and lobster traps nestle against weathered bait shacks. Snakes of rope coil on wooden docks. Small schooners, dories and Cape Islander’s anchor in the late October sun.

To get a true snapshot of Peggy’s Cove, I amble across from the docks, along the narrow path of Lobster Lane. A stranded buoy, bobs in the shallows and seaweed smothers the rocks at waters’ edge. Clusters of buoys arrayed in bouquets of colours and sea-green Adirondack chairs poise out to sea from the deck of the lonely Wharfside Cottage. The end of the season is already upon many parts of the Maritimes as the come from aways return to other parts of the province, country, or the world. The more permanent homes perch on a gentle cliff above, no strangers to the volatile maritime weather. Theirs is a spectacular, albeit often wind-whipped vista.

The gentle sibilant breeze is suddenly interrupted by the engine of a Cape Islander. The Harbour Mist,a lobster-fishing vessel, glides past slowly. Its cherry-red bow gracefully parting the deep-blue waters as it returns to the safety of Peggy’s Cove.

I soon hear an, “Ay, welcome back,” as the crew is greeted back home. The welcome, and the relief, of a seafarer’s return has been playing out here since 1811 when six families were issued a land grant of 800 acres. Fishing was their mainstay, but cattle also grazed the fertile soil that surrounds the coastal village. By the early 1900’s, a lobster cannery, a church, the General Store, and a schoolhouse supported a population of some three-hundred locals. Today, only thirty-five permanent residents call it home.

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Wandering onwards, I chance upon much more charming names than ‘General Store.’ These days it’s The Foggy Rock, Hags on the Hill and the Sou’ Wester. The once settlers’ cottages serve as quaint gift shops, restaurants and even the old schoolhouse has been converted into a charming homestead.

I hear the scraping of a wire-bristled brush even before I chance upon it. Eliza is five-steps up a ladder, tilted against the old school house. She is brushing away layers of paint… patinas of history. I peek through the window, admiring its transformation from schoolhouse to cozy cottage.

IMG_0998“It was built about 1858,” Eliza tells me, gingerly backing down the rungs to welcome me. “I married the son of a local fisherman, about forty years ago.” Yet our conversation soon meanders not to the personal, but to the local economy, now greatly influenced by the multitude of bus tours making their way from Halifax.

“The number of cruise-ship tourists grows each year,” Eliza laments. “We’re becoming overwhelmed.” Eliza and other locals agree that surely there is a limit as to how many buses these narrow roads, limited parking, and the environment can sustain.

She mentions Roger, back at the Buoy Shop. “He’s one of the residents speaking out. As am I, but some older people are leaving well enough alone.”

Of course, the star attraction of Peggy’s Cove is its iconic lighthouse. One of the most photographed images in Canada, it beckons to millions of tourists a year. The eight-sided concrete tower rises 50 feet from the grey-white granite outcrops; ancient rocks polished by glaciers and the ocean’s unrelenting tide. Guiding vessels into St. Margaret’s Bay since 1914, this lighthouse replaced the first structure of 1868– a mere beacon on the roof of a lighthouse keepers wooden home. Up until automation in 1958, the keepers ensured the kerosene oil lamp perpetually shone – first red, then white, then green – finally settling on red to conform to world navigation standards.

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I watch visitors clamber over those evocative, timeless outcrops; thankfully none are venturing down to the perilous black rocks where rogue waves have swept some out to sea. I gaze back towards the land… vegetation ablaze with the burnt reds of autumn and the church spire rising above the paint-box hues of bait shacks, cottages, and anchored boats.

A fighter-jet suddenly pierces the sky, roaring low over the cove and I turn again to the silvery-blues of the ocean. Just beyond, is a sacred place. It’s impossible to not think of those who perished here in the tragic aviation crash of September 2, 1998. The memorial, two imposing oval granite monuments at nearby Whale’s Back, lie in direct alignment with the crash site. “In memory of the 229 men, women and children aboard the Swissair Flight 111 who perished off these shores. They have been joined to the sea and sky. May they rest in Peace.”

As I take my leave, the strains of a bagpiper punctuate the scene. His kilt fluttering gently in the breeze, the piper stands alone. The melody drifts over the rocks and across the sea.

The plaintive tune harkens to the many Scots who sailed to this new land. It evokes the ferocity and the serenity of this rugged landscape. It honours the tragedies, and the vibrance of life at the cove. It is one of the most beautiful, soulful and unique places I have visited.

With it all, this appreciative come from away, feels very much at home here…

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Upside Down In The North Sea… the ‘Salsa-Kayak Pact’

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The instructor’s voice was serious and authoritative, her German accent rendering it non-negotiable.

“Time for the roll. Throw your body in the water, come up the other side.”

It was October in Norway. Along with the creeping hypothermia, I now froze in fear. Afloat in the numbing waters of the North Sea, the wind was whipping up waves and lashing the rain down like daggers.

Tucked inside the cockpit of my kayak, a ‘spray deck’ – like a skirt with a rubber seal around my waist – was attached around the oval lip of the vessel. It packed me in tightly, like a sardine in a tin; for after all, a kayak is meant to be an extension of the upper body. My lower body was now yellow, streamlined fibreglass.

“Time to roll,” the command bellowed again. But I knew that I didn’t have the body strength to fling myself into the water on one side and pop up on the other. I feared I would be stuck upside down, the weight of my vessel trapping me. Would I drown slowly, or perish from the cold first, I conjectured numbly?

“No fear,” we were encouraged, “One of the instructors will show you how.”

Sven looked like a real-life ‘action man’, melded as one with his kayak – a veritable extension of his broad torso and rugged, good-looking Nordic face. In the two-day Open Seas Kayaking Course, he projected calm, a modern-day Norse God on water who we all aspired to emulate.

With his paddle slicing the choppy water, Sven folded gently sideways into the sea like it was the most natural thing. One second, two, the bottom of his kayak pointing skyward, then on the count of three he popped up like magic… a perfect roll! He was unfazed, even his Tilly-hat remaining intact over his glistening golden hair.

One by one, the other students began plunging themselves into the frigid sea. I knew I was protected somewhat from the cold, at least my new neoprene wetsuit was doing its job of keeping me dry. With rubber cuffs that sealed out the water – at the wrists, ankles and neck – I could have been much colder than I was. The suit was a gift from hubby, more like a bribe, I now suspected!

We had just finished lunch, huddled on the shore as the rain pelted on our soggy smørbrød and any part of the body that wasn’t suited up. I had asked myself ‘what on earth was I doing here?’ I don’t like the cold, yet there I was enduring the elements on the shores of the North Sea, frozen and out my depth both mentally and physically. And all for the sake of a kayaking course? The instructor had even roped my kayak to his at one point, lest I drift off to distant Iceland. I reminded myself that it all came down to a pact… ‘the salsa-kayak pact.’

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A few months prior, a friend had announced that Salsa dance lessons were about to begin. A female engineer was offering them at the company, once a week.

“We should join,” I cornered Bruce. “You’ve always promised we’d take dance lessons together. It’ll be fun.”

He had acquiesced, but with a counter-proposal. “I’ll take salsa lessons, if you’ll take the sea kayaking skills course. It would be great to do that together. Gliding through the fjords, along the coastal scenery…”

I had actually agreed quite enthusiastically, and we soon found ourselves with ten or so other couples at the ‘office yoga studio now dance floor.’ Some were already keen dancers and kept up beautifully with the instructor. Engineer-by-day and sensuous-salsa -aficionado by night, her fluid steps – one, two three, back, five, six, seven – had the two of us baffled.

We were hopeless and maybe a little disappointed. Where was the opportunity for spontantious expression, the freedom of movement? And where was my long-ago cheerleading acumen, my ability to pick up dance steps without missing a beat?

Our zest for the lessons petered out by week three, maybe four, but now it was my turn to deliver on my part of the pact, that pesky kayaking. I had noted ruefully that Bruce had passed his kayaking course in the balmy month of May. How on earth did I end up with dismal days of October?

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But there I was, the instructor waiting not-so-patiently for my roll. Many of the kayakers had already completed their first and were now showing off with their second.

I leaned to the left, hit the water, gurgled my way until I was upside down. As predicted, I couldn’t thrust myself around to the other side. I was trapped, upside down in the North Sea. I panicked. I kicked with all my might against the oval-shaped rubber seal and as it came free, I flailed my way to the surface of the water… spluttering, bewildered, half-drowned and bedraggled.

The brusque German instructor looked at me, unfazed.

“Ok?” I had barely nodded before she boomed, “Now try again!”

Of course one can kayak without this certification, yet somehow, I knew that if I failed this, right there and right then, I might be afraid to know the true wonder of sea kayaking…. to ride the waves then gaze from a fjord’s waters up to chiselled granite cliffs and swooping eagles. I might never ply the open waters, through clustered islands dotted with quaint wooden hyttes, aromas of birchwood fires evocatively scenting the air.

I might miss the wonder of gliding into a vista – onto the canvas of nature’s masterpiece – embracing the call of the loons and the passing gaggle of ducklings as my sweetheart and I paddle together in our double kayak. What if I never had the opportunity of revelling in the serenity of silence, gazing towards the land in reverence, our children in silent communion beside us.

So, yes, I did that darn roll again. Of course, it wasn’t perfect like Sven’s, but with all my will and might, I got a ‘pass’ from the instructors. Still now, I refuse to seal myself in completely.

As I write today, autumn has tinted the trees in hues of gold, rust and deep red. We might just make it out on the water for one last autumnal paddle. We’ve paddled often since we returned home at the end of July and, indeed, the ‘salsa-kayak pact’ has turned out to be one of lifes’ most fortunate agreements.

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Jennie’s Masterpiece… the story of Butchart Gardens

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I can picture Jennie Butchart, suspended high up in a bosun’s chair, carefully coaxing soil and vine roots into limestone crevices of the abandoned quarry. She had commandeered the vast gaping hole, and now her Sunken Garden was taking shape.

“You’re ruining the country, Bob, just to get your old cement,” Jennie had reportedly chided her husband. A 1952 article in Maclean’s Magazine described it as thus…

“One day in 1909, in a glade sloping to a salt-water bay on the Saanich Peninsula of Vancouver Island… a woman stood on the edge of an abandoned quarry and began to cry.

Jennie Butchart knew the quarry well. For more than three years she had lived beside it. As a chemist in the cement works of her husband, she had analysed its high-grade limestone. She watched it yield them wealth. She knew its moods in the moonlight and at the height of storm. But the tears came because she hated it more than anything else in the world; its very ugliness so fascinated her, she could not stay away. 

The perpendicular quarry walls, twisted from dynamite blasting, dropped sixty feet to a quagmire of two and a half acres of clay. Out of a subterranean spring percolated a muddy creek which fed a deep pond on the quarry floor. A hummock of grey rock, unfit for cement, rose like a spire from the centre… Jennie Butchart stood and cried.

It was then an inspiration came to her, ‘Like a flame’ she was to say, ‘for which I shall ever thank God.”

The Butchart Estate (pronounced Butch – Art) included both their home and the quarry. Now that Jennie’s creativity and determination had been sparked, debris and rocks were replaced or hauled out. Horses with wagonloads of soil trudged back and forth to the site. Douglas firs, cedars and Lombardy poplars were strategically placed – flowering trees, shrubs and annuals would follow. Jennie envisioned colour and vibrancy. To her, the eyesore was a canvas on which to blend a palette of nature’s rich hues and textures. After all, at heart Jennie was an artist… the world famous Butchart Gardens would become her living masterpiece.

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Born in Toronto, in 1866, Jenanette Foster Kennedy was orphaned at only fourteen. Sent to Owen Sound to live with an aunt and her seven cousins, Jennie thrived in her new family. Both intelligent and artistic, she also embraced outdoor life while attending the prestigious Brantford Young Ladies’ College. Yet when offered a scholarship to continue art training in France, the young graduate declined. Instead, she choose a life with her new beau. The eighteen-year-old married the tall, determined, twenty-seven-year-old Robert (Bob) Butchart.

The young businessman was an innovator and within four years had opened Portland Cement Mill in Owen Sound. Portland cement derives its name from England, where in 1824 bricklayer Joseph Aspdin, patented the blend of limestone and clay. He named it after the local Portland stone it resembled.

In 1902, Bob would hear of a large deposit of limestone at Tod Inlet on Vancouver Island, about 20 km north of Victoria. With two daughters in tow, Bob and Jennie moved across the country and soon established a quarry and processing plant. Vancouver Island Portland Cement Company was the only cement-producing company west of the Great Lakes. The company not only pioneered refinements, but was the first to ship cement in sacks, rather than heavy, cumbersome barrels. Fortunes soared dramatically as Bob began to supply cement to facilitate the rapid building in the burgeoning province and beyond.

Jennie did not sit on the sidelines; she earned a certificate in chemistry to work in the firm’s laboratory. Yet her surroundings awakened her artistic inclinations. Re-envisioning her quaint on-site home, she hosted tea, croquet and tennis parties. Jennie was always forging ahead. The magnificent Sunken Garden was completed in nine years and to this day, cradles Jennie’s breathtaking vision. Yet if the old quarry is Butchart Garden’s celebrated centrepiece, supporting works of ‘art’ accompany this National Historic Site of Canada.

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The rambling Rose Garden, blooms with some 280 varieties. The Japanese Garden, its authentic Torii gate, stepping stones, maple and beech trees evoking serenity. The Mediterranean Garden, a celebration of the island’s balmy, temperate climate. The Coast Salish totem poles, honouring the storied culture of the island’s indigenous peoples. And my personal favourite, The Italian Garden – once the family tennis court – anchored by a sensuous arched wall of green, exotic palms and plants flourishing from around the globe.

For indeed, the Butcharts were also avid travellers. A trip to Rome had inspired The Italian Garden, while travels to the Himalayas, the Pyrenees and the orient garnered yet more unusual plants as well as collectibles such as urns, statues and pagodas.

As Jennie’s gardens were designed, planted and flourished – with flowering plums, magnolia, dogwood, Siberian wallflowers, bachelor’s buttons, peony and so much more – her home flourished as well. After numerous expansions, a welcome sign in Italian hung over the door. The lady of the house epitomised the spirit of ‘Benvenuto‘.

Friends began to visit the gardens, they brought their friends, and their friends brought other friends. Soon the garden opened officially three days a week. By the First World War, sightseers were flocking to the garden in tallyhos, on horseback, aboard country trolleys. Now, Jennie flung her garden gates wide open… and left them open seven days a week.

When strangers peered in the windows of Benvenuto, friends would suggest to Jenny that she should charge admission. “Oh no” she’d reply, “the flowers are fleeting. Why shouldn’t people enjoy them? They’re free for all.” Only one sign asked for ‘privacy’, and still does today. Enclosed by white lattice, it was Jennie’s one retreat – her private garden.

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Bob contributed to the thrilling panoply with rare birds, peacocks, pearl breasted pigeons, English and Mexican canaries, water fowl and German bullfinches trained to whistle. He imported 565 Japanese cherry trees to lavishly line the public road to the estate. At the time, its ‘beauty second only to Potomac Drive’ in Washington DC.

The entrepreneur expanded into timber, steamships, shipbuilding, coal, hardware and trusts. He had one of the first automobiles on Vancouver Island and followed it up with imported European and luxury models. With his chauffeur often in the back seat, Bob was known to cruise at breakneck speeds. When he reached eighty, his concerned wife convinced the police to revoke his driver’s license.

It’s said that Bob had the bearing of a distinguished officer, but it seems the self-made millionaire enjoyed life with a wry sense of humour: games of rummy with his servants, given to piping melodies from his beloved pipe organ into The Italian Garden to serenade lovers on evening strolls, offering a doctor who had performed an operation part cash and part world travel for payment… the doctor took him up on it!

It’s reported that in contrast to her husband, Jennie was ‘as blunt as an Irish washerwoman’. Just over five feet, she was a force to be reckoned, one who cared more about the colour flow of her gardens than the cut and fashion of her dresses. Who can blame her that overalls and a straw hat were her preferred garb. She was an excellent storyteller, loved a good earthy joke… she was generous and kind. Each week, a gardener would don high rubber boots, wade into the wishing well to fish out the coins that visitors had cast in. Wheelbarrowed over to Jennie as she sat on her sun porch, she would help package the coins to donate to charity.

As the unpaid official welcomer for the city of Victoria, Jennie entertained dignitaries, conventions and whole army regiments. She hosted tea parties for the poor and the aged, and delighted in drawing word pictures of the flowers for the blind so they could envision them as they savoured their scents. Sharing the enchantment of her garden was Jennie’s gift. Even when, by 1915, some 18,000 people toured the gardens, she refused to charge admission.

During the ‘off season’, the Butcharts embarked on extensive world tours (today the gardens are open year round.) “It seems lonely when the crowds stop coming,” Jennie lamented and Bob agreed, “I can’t understand how some people shut themselves away from their fellow man. Why, I’m never lonely when I can see so many people enjoying themselves every day.”

In 1931 Jennie was recognised as Citizen of the Year by the City of Victoria. In 1938, the ownership of the gardens was transferred to their grandson, Ian Ross on his 21st birthday… it is still in the family today. In 2015, Jennie was inducted into the Business Laureates of British Columbia’s Hall of fame. Their motto – they built, we benefit – seems tailor-made for Jennie Butchart.

As I wandered the gardens, I mused that her spirit still graces the vistas; from the dramatic Sunken Garden to the whisper of maples gently rustling in the Japanese Garden from the dancing fountain to the riots of colour and the vivacious scents of the blooms. It’s recalled that during Jennie’s time, many visitors didn’t realise the property was a private garden. People plucked flowers and fruit from the trees – this meant fewer to give away to hospitals. A few were known to pilfer coins from the wishing well. A family dog and a garden peacock were carried off. When visitors carved their initials on various trees, Bob patiently designated a tree for that purpose alone.

Yet more often than not, their generous hospitality was repaid in kind. When the King of Siam visited, he invited the Butcharts to visit his palace in Bangkok. The following year, the travelling couple gladly took the King up on his offer, spending twelve days as his guests. The Butcharts lived well, both overseas and in their tucked-away haven on the Tod Inlet.

I vividly envisioned Jennie, weaving her way through her garden, luxuriating in the divine setting she had created. Perhaps this last anecdotal story, during the visit of an English explorer, portrays this inspiring lady at her finest.

“I know one flower you haven’t got,” the visitor piped up as Jennie showed off her 5000 varieties. “You don’t have the blue poppy of Tibet.”

Jennie slyly led the visitor to a bed of heavenly blue poppies. “Why that’s impossible,” the Englishman exclaimed. “I just discovered them myself in Tibet!”

And indeed he had, and had then sent one flower from Tibet to London’s Kew Gardens. But Jennie being Jennie, had wasted no time and had already garnered the seeds from the blue poppy. I like to imagine her re-offering the guest a seed or two from the very flower he had sourced.

If only, if only we could stroll through the gardens with Jennie by our side…

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If you go…

The Buchart Gardens are a short drive from Victoria, or hop on a bus

Visit in the afternoon and stay for the free summer evening concerts… Jennie would be pleased with that!

Enjoy dinner in the Dining Room overlooking the Italian Garden, or at the more informal Blue Poppy Garden

Do buy some seeds in the wonderfully stocked Gift Store

Adhere to the Garden’s Etiquette including no selfie-sticks and quiet conversation…

Read more about Vancouver Island’s other inspiring artist I’ve written of, Emily Carr, and of the island itself

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