Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Muddy Whirlpools in the Fraser

I was glued to the window while the train crossed the high muddy river. A brown whirlpool mesmerized me, pulled me back in time.

Spring flood. The most exciting season of our childhood year. The Skeena flooded every June, a few days before school got out.

Every afternoon my brother and I bolted our snacks...cheese or peanut butter crackers and milk. Then we raced off down to the creek to see how much the water had risen.

Waiting for high water, we stood on the low wooden bridge and watched sticks, branches and leaves whirl away downstream.

Breathing in the dank smell, we watched the brown water roil around the frail structure of the bailey bridge. Would it hold?

The "creek" was really a narrow arm of the Skeena River, separated from the main channel by a fertile island with half a dozen farms and a few houses. If the water rose above the bridge deck, or the bridge washed out, the islanders would be trapped.

Some years the low-lying island flooded, making the farmer's hayfield look like a small lake with a stand of cottonwoods along the edge. This was pure magic; we knew, yet didn't know the place.

When the water receded, our play places were changed. The trees beside the creek were caked with drying mud. River sandbars had been re-sculpted. Best of all, ahead lay the tantalizing prospect of a whole summer of playing outside, exploring our altered world.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

A farewell evening stroll in Victoria



CAA's Canwrite! 2010 in Victoria left me in information overload. I'd been doing a lot of sitting too.

After the awards ceremony, Jane (from Langley) and I (from Surrey) met Ann from Whitehorse and Ruth from Ontario and stood in front of the hotel talking of the G20 in Toronto.

Psychiatrist, comic poet and blogger Dr. William Hay entertains his fellow members of CAA.

Ruth and Ann told us they were going to walk down to the houseboats. But Jane and I, both in heels, headed for the elevators. Jane was planning to watch the CBC news for the latest G20 developments, but I felt restless. I changed my shoes and went out in the balmy air.

Passing the big hotels, I followed Kingston around, turned down St. Lawrence Street and walked along beside the silent houses with their fragrant flowering hedges to Ogden Point.

The cruise ship pier was a blaze of light with three ships in port: the Norwegian Pearl, the Sapphire Princess and the Osterdam. To get close, I had to avoid a steady stream of buses and limos.

As I turned to walk back, I noticed the trunks of some huge Garry Oaks that butted right up against the narrow sidewalk. One tree had some roots cut off. The rough-barked tree resembled the leg of an enormous elephant, the cut roots its neatly clipped nails.

Over my shoulder, the rising moon looked close to full. It disappeared behind a house, and reappeared swathed in a variety of clouds. Such innocuous-looking clouds, Julie and Colin Angus said, had presaged the hurricane that tried its best to sink their tiny boat in mid-Atlantic.

As I returned from my quiet half-hour stroll, I was amazed to see a parking lot advertising a daily rate of only $4. Last week when I had an evening event in Vancouver, I had to pay $5 just for the 15 minutes that I arrived before the evening parking rate kicked in.

Ahead loomed the castle-like Empress Hotel, its venerable stone flanks swathed in vines and bathed along the front in pink light. This time in Victoria has indeed been a lovely change of scene.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Canwrite 2010 winds down with adventure and prizes


The CAA 2010 Canwrite! conference is over. The final event was the Awards Banquet.


Photo: Moderating the awards banquet, National President Anthony Dalton introduces guest speakers while Conference Chair Jean Kay relaxes after her working her organizational magic.

Julie and Colin Angus told a rapt audience about two astonishing adventure journeys they undertook using human power alone.

The first began in Scotland, took them through thirteen countries by rowboat and bicycle to Syria and lasted about seven months. The second trip was more ambitious. Beginning in Vancouver, the two cycled north to the Bering Sea and crossed to Siberia, then worked their way west, suiting their means of travel to climate.

From Portugal they rowed across the Atlantic in a specially prepared 20-foot boat. Five months and two anomalous hurricanes later, they arrived in Costa Rica. After traveling north by bicycle through Central America, Mexico and the US, they finally arrived home. On that trip, the couple clocked two years and 42,000 kilometres.

Following the guest speaker presentation, the 2009 CAA Awards were announced. Rachelle Delaney of Vancouver was delighted to accept the Emerging Writer Award for her kids' pirate yarn The Ship of Lost Souls (HarperCollins Publishing.)

The other recipients, unable to attend, were awarded their prizes in absentia. Tom Dawe of Conception Bay, Newfoundland got the poetry award for Where Genesis Begins (Breakwater Books). The Carol Bolt Award for Drama was awarded to Michael Nathanson of Winnipeg, and Jonathan Vance of London, Ontario won the Canadian History Award. The fiction award went to Newfoundlander Michael Crummy for Galore (Doubleday Canada).

Finally, the Allan Sangster Award for service to the Association was awarded to Walter McConville and accepted by fellow-Victoria CAA member Sheila Martindale. The evening ended with the winning bidders picking up their fabulous silent auction prizes, from fine jewelry to nights in the Royal York and afternoon tea for two at the Victoria's famous Empress Hotel.

This year's focus was on technology in writing, and members got loads of up-to-date information, along with plenty of encouragement and inspiration. Hats off to Jean Kay for being the major power behind this great event, and to all the others who helped her make Canwrite 2010 such a resounding success.

June evening in Victoria, BC


The breeze is surprisingly brisk on this June evening in the provincial capital. From Oswego Street, I cut through the small park to Belleville, then turn right and walk past the Hotel Grand Pacific on my right and the inner harbour on my left. Ahead, the Parliament Buildings are festooned with strings of white LED lights. Along Menzies Street, several horse drawn carriages wait at the kerb.

Picture: Ruby shares her dinner with pigeons.

The handsome draft horses have thickset bodies, stocky legs and long-haired fetlocks. They look bored as they wait. One raises his head and neighs loudly as I pass. Perhaps he is annoyed by having to wear the leather blinders that restrict his view. The harness gleams and the velvet-upholstered seats of the caleches look inviting.

Refreshed by my evening walk, I ride the hotel elevator with a couple who are speaking softly in Afrikaans. He has on the green and yellow South Africa jacket of a World Cup soccer fan. As the two step out, the girl glances back to wish me good night in English.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Storyteller Richard Wagamese inspires colleagues at Canwrite 2010 in Victoria

Photo by Sheila Martindale

Canwrite 2010, the annual conference of the Canadian Author's Association, is in full swing. After an amazing two days, by mid- afternoon, I was poleaxed.

Far too exhausted to go to the gym or the pool, or even outside for fresh air, I fell on my comfy hotel bed and slept. Woke refreshed, ready to hear the words of this year's Literary Awards winners.

Richard Wagamese, writer, story teller and former CAA Award winner, opened the event, inspiring fellow writers with his own story, as well as his sense of the storyteller as a magician who conjures up something from nothing.

He talked of writing as a spiritual calling, and described how he always begins the writing process by closing his eyes and breathing deep to get in touch with the place where his intention, trust and faith allow story to flow through.

Humans are tribal, he told us. We long to sit around the fire, lean close and hear one voice speaking, allow that single voice to fill us.

Richard Wagamese also shared his humour. He told us how he changed his acronym for FAITH from "Find another Indian to help," to "Find an insight that heals." Follow your calling. Have the intention, the faith and then let the conjuring happen once again.

"You're experienced enough," he told a rapt audience of writers. "You can do that too."

Rhonda Lee Stephenson-Read, the event emcee and Awards Chair of the CAA, voiced the thoughts of many when she responded spontaneously to the words of this inspired storyteller: "I can't wait to get home and start writing."

I felt the same. On Suite 101, I published an article about oral storyteller Richard Wagamese and his novel Keeper'n Me.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Raccoons in the Garden


We've suspected it for a long time. Sometimes we hear the quiet churring of their voices at night. Sometimes we hear rustling as they move around the garden. Yesterday afternoon we finally saw the whole family. First to show themselves were the mother and one pup.

Looking down from the deck, we all kept quiet, even the cat. He wasn't too bothered; didn't even puff up his tail. He's obviously familiar with them.

We all watched as they crossed the back lawn and went down the bank into the trees. Thought the drama was over. It wasn't. She returned with two more pups, and strolled back the way she had come, pausing while the little fellows tussled. She even let us see where she had them tucked away under the side porch.

It's an honour to be so trusted by creatures of the wild. But we'll keep it a nodding acquaintance, for their sake and the sake of the cat.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Quiet Park Remains Unchanged


This morning, walking around Bear Creek Park, I thought about how much this walk has changed since we moved here.

140th Street was two narrow lanes flanked by native alders and cottonwoods that met overhead, forming a quiet green tunnel. A narrow packed-earth path was the forerunner of the wide paved walkway that now flanks the busy four lane-boulevard.

In September 1992, I walked with and piggy-backed my five-year-old daughter. After passing the mushroom farm, we crossed the road to speak to a lone cow who stood in knee-deep grass behind a disused fence, munching on windfall apples in an abandoned orchard. We too filled our pockets with those small delicious Gravensteins. Later we sat on the porch and made applesauce.

The orchard and the old farmhouse with its hedged garden are gone; a Hindu temple now stands by a Korean church. Walking the same trail where I once saw an owl in a cottonwood, I now smell the lingering aroma of curry, hear the high dolorous sounds of temple music.

The trail bends and bends again, and I walk once more in silence beneath the trees and cross the new bridge. The early morning park is quiet, fragrant with the dank smells of dew-laden grasses. Beside the wide paved path, rabbits nibble, unmoved as I pass.

Natural vegetation gives way to lawn. As I pass the disused cross trail that led to the old bridge, I feel a tiny pang. That narrow wooden bridge, located right in the elbow of the creek, washed away one long-gone spring, cutting off that section of park from our side, and I still miss that part of the trail. Some kids still go to the creek's edge to play there; I see their bikes.

After crossing wide lawns, the trail follows the creek, lightly screened by alders and wild salmon berries now bearing their pale orange fruit. The blackberries are covered at this season with delicate pink-white flowers that belie their vicious thorns. The trail turns again, passes the wood-fenced track where other early risers jog.

I pass the playground, now empty and silent, and cross the bridge beneath the wisteria-covered wooden arch into the gardens. Beneath the large cedars, a few purple rhododendrons are still in flower. Mock orange is in fragrant bloom and the flower beds are rich with colour.

Once through the garden, I return to the boulevard, noticing how the trees and shrubs on the central median have grown tall. Again each double lane has growing trees on either side, reaching up as if they would arch across the roadway once again.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Breaking the force of habit

Today I got lost. The timing couldn't have been better. For the first time in ages, I was driving the old Miata, top down.

When I finished my meeting early, I decided to go to the beach. The sky was a brilliant blue, the air fresh and warm. After days of rain and cloud, the contrast was glorious.

From Vancouver, I followed my usual route to White Rock at first. Then I thought, why not try out a new route? And promptly got lost.

I noticed something odd. Though I wasn't far from home, the different surroundings, along with not knowing where I was or where I should turn actually made me feel a bit anxious. Oh the comfort of habit!

Before long, I found my way. In a short time I was cruising along the beach. Marine Drive was pretty quiet, today being a weekday and the season still early.

My little adventure made me think. From now on, I'm going to explore different routes more often. I'd like to expand my comfort zone rather than being hemmed in by a map of habit.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Two Greyhounds

Pointe a Calliere, Vieux Montreal. A woman is leaving the museum with two dogs on a leash. Their thin stripped-down bodies look familiar. We watch for a few moments as they sniff at distractions and strain at their Y-shaped lead. "Greyhounds!" says Yasemin.

My mind turns on the word. The Greyhound from Terrace pulled into the depot at dusk. Prince George was a rough town. The southbound bus didn't leave till midnight.

At a booth at the Depot cafe, I put my guitar case under the table, placed my order. Draining my coffee, I paid my bill and walked away. Remembered my guitar, hurried back. It was right where I'd left it.

In Quesnel, a sloe-eyed James Dean impersonator sat beside me. He was wearing those fashionable shiny black shoes with the elastic panels in the side and the crease marks across the vamp. The heels were high and narrow, like on cowboy boots.

I pretended to be asleep. At dawn we rolled into Cache Creek. He pointed to a poster in a shop window. "I know that girl," he said. "She's a model." Then he put his hand on my knee.

At the rest stop he followed me across the parking lot, caught his heel in a storm drain. He had to take off his shoe and stand on one foot to pull it free. I watched and laughed. Now I had the upper hand.

Back on the bus, he chose a different seat. Pleasantly alone with my thoughts, I rode the Greyhound with an empty seat beside me.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Nautical Charts of the South Pacific


Currently on display at the Musee de la Civilisation in Quebec City is an exhibition on the history of human thought called Copyright humain.

This is filled with a variety of astonishing sights. One is an upright walking replica extrapolated from the 40% complete skeleton of australopithicus hominid Lucy. Another is a black and white NFB film of Wilder Penfield and colleagues operating on a human brain in the early days of the Montreal Neurological Institute.

For me, one of the most fascinating artifacts was a small wooden frame that functioned as a nautical chart for the wayfinders of Oceania. The label explains that it illustrates the "perfect knowledge" of Oceanian navigators. Shells and corals represent the islands and the angled wooden slats depict the waves and currents around each.

These maps were memorized by the navigator before setting out on the voyage. In this way, the peoples of the south seas traveled by outrigger canoe from one small island to another.

Colonial conquerors, proud of their "scientific superiority," denigrated such knowledge, along with the civilizations that produced it. The ancient knowledge was nearly lost.

But since 1976, when it travelled between Tahiti and Hawaii, the Hokulea, a traditional outrigger canoe, has once again been plying the waters of the Pacific using this ancient system of navigation.