Awesome (as in, inspires awe) Alberta

Canada is a big place. Over the past couple of family vacations, we have been discovering (or in my case rediscovering) this fact. In 2017 we went to Newfoundland for Canada’s sesquicentennial. When 2019 rolled around we toyed with the idea of going to Europe to visit relatives. Maybe the kids could see their first mountains in the Alps, like I once did, visiting my paternal grandmother. But there wasn’t enough time. We only had a week. So, we decided to stay in Canada again for another no-passport-needed trip. The kids could see mountains right here at “home” in the Canadian Rockies.

It also seemed a good time for a family of Toronto-based ecologists to go to Alberta because, as the Federal election looms, Canada seems to be polarized over many issues including pipelines. I know that many Albertans are frustrated and feel like the rest of Canada doesn’t understand what they are going through. They may have a point, aptly captured in this political cartoon, which pokes fun at Canada’s response to the loss of 2500 jobs due to the closing of an auto plant in Oshawa, after seemingly ignoring the fact that Alberta has been losing thousands of jobs a month (at least in 2015/2016). I know we can’t change that by visiting and learning about the place, or with our paltry tourism dollars, but it seemed better than nothing.

Because of the success we’d had in Newfoundland, we once again decided to rent a car and do a self-guided tour, with accommodations and some destinations planned in advance for us by a local travel agency. This time – to the kids delight – several “touristy” things were included. In other words, things in which their “frugal” mother wouldn’t normally indulge.

We landed in Calgary and our first stop was Nose Hill Park where we had a picnic lunch and then hiked restored native prairie in the middle of the city.


Our picnic view in Nose Hill Park, Calgary.

Then it was off to the Calgary Tower. A ride to the top was included in our trip – one of those things I wouldn’t normally have paid for – but when we arrived, we found the entire tower closed. Apparently, there had been an incident with the elevators in mid-July and the tower had been closed since. Undeterred, we decided to explore the downtown core of the city. We stopped at the wonderful architecture of the Calgary New Central Library. Both outside and inside, the building is like an art museum and library rolled into one with a large central atrium and a huge skylight.


Calgary’s New Central Library outside


Calgary’s New Central Library inside

After the library we took the Calgary Transit light rail over the Devonian Gardens. One hectare of indoor botanical gardens housed on the fourth floor of the CORE shopping center. The kids loved the idea of the indoor gardens and a pretty impressive indoor playground. It certainly seemed like a good idea to me in a place with six months of winter.


Devonian Gardens

That evening we had an excellent pizza dinner with a cousin of mine whom neither Hubby nor the kids had met. She’s lovely and we had a great time catching up. We ended up visiting relatives anyhow. Not that difficult when your extended family is spread all over the place.

We started the next day at Olympic Park just west of the city where we took in the infrastructure used during the 1988 Calgary Olympics. I still remember those Olympics with pride and had the orchestral theme of the games running through my head the whole time we were there. We took goofy photos in the bobsled used for the 1993 movie “Cool Runnings” and then the kids convinced us to do the downhill karting track. The ride included taking the ski lift to the top of the hill and then a 1.8 km long iceless luge track down. It was great fun and the kids got to drive their own carts. Best of all, we got to do it all twice.


Once down the luge and ready to go again

Then it was onwards to the mountains and Banff. We opted to stay a bit outside of town (but well within cycling distance). There we had peace, quiet and a lovely one-bedroom condo with a spectacular view of Cascade Mountain just outside our door.


Our view in Banff

We visited the Cascade Gardens and found them a profusion of flowers: stunning pinks, blues, and golds accented by pools of water, arched bridges and a gazebo. We took in the main drag of town from the historic Banff Park Administrative building and then it was off to the next adventure, a covered wagon ride with Warner Stables Banff Trail Riders. This was another one of the excursions I might not have taken had it not been included, but it ended up being quite lovely. Lucas was completely taken by the horses (if a little scared), and the wagon ride offered us lovely views. Next time though, I want to ride the horses.

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Warner Stables

We ate steak outdoors in the woods – we are not vegetarian when we travel to free range beef country – and then we got lassoing lessons! On the way back to the hotel we took in a few more sites including the Banff Springs Hotel (from across the Bow Rapids) and then the lovely little trail out to Hoodoo Viewpoint. The light was perfect and turned the tips of the mountains pink and gold.


Hoodoos backed by mountains tipped pink

When we woke the next morning, there was frost on the car. We knew it would be chilly up at the summit of Sulpher mountain and so we dressed warmly before heading to the Banff Gondola. The ride up was smooth and fast. Much quicker than the 6 km hike would have been. We had a gorgeous sunny day, so the views for the top were spectacular. There was also an amazing interpretive centre and a great little hike along a scenic boardwalk to Sanson’s Peak (2,256 metres).


Stairs to Sanson’s Peak

There was so much to see that, although we first had a ticket for 1.5 hours at the summit, we changed our return time and ended up staying 2.5 hours.


Golden Mantled Ground Squirrel

Then it was off to Lake Minnewanka, which takes its name from the language of the Stoney Nakoda people who settled the area as much as 10,000 years ago (Minne = water and Wanka = spirit). Lake Minnewanka is the deepest lake in Banff National Park. It got to be that way because the glaciers got stuck in the Minnewanka valley when they ran up against a wall of the granite at the valley’s east end. While stuck, they kept them grinding the valley deeper and deeper. The place where the glaciers finally breached – Devil’s Gap – gives a view out to the Prairies. The Stoney Nakoda people would have used the Devil’s Gap as an entrance into the Rockies, a route they introduced to some of the first European explorers. The Devil’s Gap has been a critical corridor for people and wildlife for at least 13,000 years.


West end of Lake Minnewanka

On the way back to the hotel we saw a group of big horned sheep, which made taking the scenic route all the more worthwhile. Back at the hotel, everyone decided to take some time for themselves. I used my time to rent a bike. For all of the pricy things included in our trip, renting that bike was the best $10 I spent. I rode into town along a short stretch of the Banff legacy bike trail. I mainly bike in the city and so riding on a safe and separated bike lane, through stunning scenery with clean, fresh air flowing into my lungs was exhilarating!


Separated bike lane in Banff.

Beyond the town I continued onto the Vermillion lakes. These lakes represent a rare wetland in the Rockies, where water wants to rush downhill and rather than meander.


Vermillion lakes wetland

There were ducks on the lake and the view of Mt. Rundle was amazing. No wonder people have been painting or taking pictures of these wetlands and mountain from the for so long.


Vermillion lakes and Mt. Rundle with my rental bike

The next day we drove from Banff to Jasper on the famous Icefields Parkway. The drive is consistently rated amongst the top 10 most scenic drives in the world and it is clear why. We took a quick detour at Lake Louise to take the Trans-Canada highway into British Columbia. This was the first time that Hubby, Ray or Lucas set foot in that province. Across the border we were in Yoho National Park and we made a pit stop at the spiral tunnels. The tunnels were designed as spirals as a way for trains to safely navigate the steep grade up to the highest point in the Trans-Canada railway (and highway) – Kicking Horse Pass – so named because James Hector had a very hard time while surveying the pass in 1858. The trains spiral up or down slowly in tight turns, greatly reducing the risk of runaway trains.


Yoho National Park

Back in Alberta, we made a stop at Peyto Lake, which is the same turquoise blue as Lake Louise (if not a bit brighter). The lakes have this stunning colour because the glaciers that feed them grind the calcite and limestone of the mountains into a fine powder called “rock flour”. When suspended in water, “rock flour” absorbs all colours of the spectrum except blue and green, making the water glow turquoise.

From Peyto Lake we went straight to the Columbia Icefield. The change in elevation was dramatic and it was exciting to be up so close to the tree line. The Glacier Adventure tour was included and so we got to go out onto the Athabasca glacier itself by ice crawler. I could have done without the crowds, but the ice crawlers were very cool and the guides were full of interesting information. For example, the Subalpine Spruce and Engelmann Pine we saw beside the glaciers are 300 to 400 years old, yet are only just taller than an adult human, because they only have about two months a year to grow.


The ice crawlers are big

I was impressed by the size of the ice crawlers. The tires alone are taller than out kids. The guides told us that these huge machines are built by a Calgary based company that builds research and industrial vehicles. Ice crawlers built by the same company, are being used in the Antarctic. They run on very low tire pressure (16 psi vs 30 in a regular car) which gives excellent traction on ice and steep grades. Each crawler costs $1.3M.


The glacier makes the ice crawler look small

As impressive as the ice crawlers were, the glacier was even bigger.


Here you can barely see the ice crawlers on the glacier

When we exited the ice crawler, we were standing with 250 meters of ice under our feet. The glacier was also melting – all around us. This water was flowing down from the Columbian Icefields and then splitting into watersheds that feed three oceans: the Atlantic, the Pacific and the Arctic. The glacier is melting fast. When I was here in 1996 the glacier was certainly thicker and closer to the road. I hitchhiked out from Jasper and was easily able to walk from the road to the toe of the glacier and up onto it (something that is absolutely not allowed now). Indeed, the glacier is losing more than 5 meters off its surface every year and may be gone in a generation.

As we descended from the Icefields towards Jasper, we started noticing red trees. This was pine beetle infestation. And the species attacked the most often are lodgepole pine. The views remained spectacular and the rusty red was almost pretty, but it was still a sobering site to see so many dead and dying trees. The beetle has infested 30% of lodgepole pine forest in Jasper National Park. That is not good news because the dead trees make excellent kindling for forest fires.


View from Old Fort Point shows the extent of Pine Beetle infestation

When we got to Jasper, I took a hike at the Old Fort Point trail. I needed to get my blood flowing after a day in the car and so I hiked the 130 meters up to the viewpoint straight up the steepest part of the trail. I was rewarded with lovely views of the valley and Mt. Edith Cavell glowing in the sunset.

Our full day in Jasper was packed solid with activities. We started with the Jasper SkyTram, which is a cable tramway with only too large trams, in contrast to the Banff gondola, which is more like a ski lift with over 80 gondolas. From the tram station, I hiked up the additional 200 metres to the summit of Whistlers Mountain at 2463m.


Above the tree line on Whistlers Mountain

After the SkyTram we drove an hour to Maligne Lake. On the way out we saw a small group of Elk and on the way back we saw a black bear crossing the road. At the lake, we boarded a boat that would take us 14 km out to Spirit Island. The island became famous to the wider world in 1960 when it was pictured in Peter Gales’ image in Kodak’s Colorama showcase in New York City’s Grand Central Terminal. That photo sparked the tourist industry on Maligne Lake. Gales said he took the shot because he thought it captured the spirit of the Rockies. As we pulled through the narrowest part of the lake, we saw what artist and explorer Mary Schäffer – the first European to see Maligne Lake in 1908 – called “the Hall of Gods”.


Spirit Island and the Hall of the Gods

We stopped on the mainland next to tiny Spirit Island to explore and to take pictures; however, we were not permitted on the island itself because it is a spiritual place for the Stoney Nakoda First Nation. They call the island Sacred Island and used it as a spiritual place when they lived in the area for at least 8000 years before the coming of Europeans. Then in 1907, when the National Park opened, the Stoney we exiled from their lands within the park were shipped off to reserves in Northern Alberta. The Stoney weren’t allowed back onto their Sacred Island for a hundred years. Then in 2016 they returned for a healing ceremony.

The healing ceremony was prompted by the Excelsior wildfire, which began on July 1st 2015 and burned out of control as a category 6 wildfire until June 20th. That fire left a scar on the land – a big one – 5000 hectares. We saw it while driving along Maligne Road to and from the lake.


Burn scar from the Excelsior wildfire

On the way back to Jasper, we made a quick stop at Maligne Canyon. It is the deepest gorge in the Rockies, up to 55 m deep and 1.2 km long, carved through Devonian limestone. All of the water flowing through Maligne and Medicine Lakes, thunders through this canyon on the way to the Athabasca Valley. But the water disappears into a vast underground cave system first. By using red dye, scientists discovered that the journey took 12 to 24 hours in the summer and 5 to 9 days in the winter. Once in the canyon proper, even more water is added via springs found in the gorge. In fact, geologists have discovered that more water flows out of the canyon than flows in!


Maligne Canyon

That evening we took a guided paddle onto Pyramid lake with Wild Current Outfitters. Compared to the large group tourist activities we’d been doing; our guide’s small operation was a relaxing break. He’d built his 9-person voyager canoe himself over a winter and the boat was beautiful! It was peaceful on the lake because all of the rental boats and had already been returned. We saw a single canoe and a fishing boat, but beyond that, the lake was ours to share with Common Loons, an osprey and whatever other animals were hiding nearby. There may have been plenty. Other have seen golden eagles, elk, moose, bears, wolves and even a lynx on his tours. To top it all off, on the drive back to town we saw two fully antlered male elk.


Sharing Pyramid Lake with its resident Common Loon

The next day we left the majestic Rockies behind. The 4-hour drive to Edmonton took us along the Athabasca River as it tumbled over rocks or braided its way through gravelly flats. As we drove, the mountains gradually petered out to foothills. On the way we saw black bear and buck elk. We made a pit stop in Edson, a town of about 9000 people in the rolling woodlands, about half way to Edmonton, and then we were off, on a mission to the West Edmonton Mall.

I am not a big mall person, but I’ve been interested in the West Edmonton Mall (WEM) since I was a child when I could barely fathom the idea of a place big enough for Galaxyland indoor amusement park, the World Waterpark, a skating rink, bowling alley and more.


Indoor high-speed looping roller-coaster – West Edmonton Mall

The was even an exact replica of Christopher Columbus’ flagship sailed to the Americas in 1492.


Replica of Christopher Columbus’ 1492 flagship – West Edmonton Mall

When I was a kid – actually until 2004 – it was the largest mall in the world. Now there are more than twenty malls that are bigger, which says much about our consumerist society. WEM covers an area of about 490,000 square meters and houses more than 800 stores, 2 hotels and 9 attractions. We stayed at the Fantasyland Hotel (not something I would normally do, but very convenient since it rained the whole time we were in Edmonton and we could walk indoors from the hotel to all the attractions and restaurants).

We chose the Waterpark for our attraction and I was quite impressed. There were splash pads and slides for little kids, intermediate, advanced and extreme riders as well as three hot tubs (which kids were allowed into). There was also a huge wave pool with waves big enough to actually crest! I guess when you have 6 months of winter you need to put things like amusement parks and certainly waterparks inside.


World Waterpark – West Edmonton Mall

The next day took us from Edmonton to Drumheller. Before leaving, we headed into downtown Edmonton to get a glimpse of the city proper. We drove along the North Saskatchewan River and saw a number of parks as well as the Alberta Legislature. It rained for most of the drive, but we didn’t mind. We’d been extremely lucky to have beautiful clear skies for our time in the mountains. The rainy summer also meant that wildfires were tamped down and we hadn’t had to deal with the smoke and poor visibility of previous years. Indeed, we were grateful for the rain.

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The Prairie

About half an hour from Drumheller, the skies cleared, and we got great views of the Prairie, with recently harvested wheat fields shining golden from horizon to horizon. The weather also held for us to be able to take a hike through the Drumheller badlands.


Hiking the Badlands Trail

The Alberta badlands were formed during the last Ice Age between 22,000 to 12,000 years ago. At that time, this part of Alberta was buried under a kilometer of ice. When that ice melted, remnants of the glaciers acted as dams, creating huge inland lakes. When the glacial dams collapsed, torrents of water surged across the land. Huge rivers cut into the glacial ruble and sedimentary rock, carving out deep canyons.

As we hiked, we took in the fascinating scenery. There were hoodoos, deep forested valleys called coulees which carry runoff from rain or snow, and smaller rills that showed the patterns of run-off formed form by channels of water. The canyon walls were layered, and each layer told a story of the deep history of the landscape. The whitish sandstone told of sands deposited by huge rivers, the grey-brown siltstones told of silt and mud deposited by floodwaters, black bands of coal told of plant material accumulated from ancient swamps, finally red-purple-black bands of ironstones told of chemical reactions that happen in the buried sediments.


Hoodoos, layers, rills and more features of the Badlands

With such deep history revealed by erosion, the Alberta badlands are a treasure trove of fossils and the remnants of more than 20 different species of dinosaur have been found in the Drumheller area: Triceratops, Pterasaurs, Corythassaurus and of course the Famous Albertosaurus. The badlands are still full of cool creatures, albeit smaller ones.


Creature watching in the badlands


Columbian Ground Squirrel

With intriguing scenery and a trove of fossils, why is this area called the badlands? The slopes of the canyons are made of bentonite clay, formed from ancient volcanic ash deposited millions of years ago. On a dry day, it looks harmless, but any precipitation causes the bentonite to swell and become very greasy and slippery. This made crossing these canyons extremely difficult for native peoples and for early European explorers.

After exploring outdoors, we took in a multitude of exhibits inside the Royal Tyrrell Museum. We walked through galleries about geology, geological time keeping, how scientists clean and preserve fossils and then we took a journey through time from the Precambrian through to the Cenozoic, leaning about plants and animals and their fossils along the way.


Frighteningly real looking dinosaurs at the Royal Tyrell Museum

On our last day in Alberta, we went back into the town of Drumheller to take photos of the world’s largest dinosaur statue (cheesy but fun).


Drumheller welcomes you with the world’s largest dinosaur (yes, those are real trees)

From town, we drove 15 minutes to the Horseshoe Canyon, where we took a short hike down into the eastern side of the canyon to enjoy a last glimpse of the Alberta badlands. Then we went to the Nature Conservancy of Canada’s (NCC) 320-acre Nodell property to check out a stretch of restored prairie and the western part of Horseshoe Canyon.


Horseshoe Canyon

From the badlands it was onto Calgary and the airport. The clouds folded in and we were engulfed in a misty fog as we entered the city. I was sad to be leaving, but happy that I’d had the chance to show my family the awesome beauty of Alberta. Canada is such a huge and diverse country and I’m so glad that we’ve spent the last few big trips exploring parts of it: Newfoundland in 2017 and now Alberta in 2019. Wonder where we’ll go next? The Yukon is still on my bucket list.


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Year in Review 2018

26 December 2018, Toronto and Collingwood, Ontario, Canada

Another year. Does anyone else feel like time is moving faster? Every year I write that my kids have grown and that too seems to be speeding up. Both boys are just so big! I can’t say I have little kids anymore. I have big kids now.

The “baby” of the family is most certainly not a baby or even a little kid anymore. My youngest has grown about 5 cm this year and I can barely lift my eight-year-old. He’s changed cognitively and emotionally too.  He has big ideas and opinions now. We have long conversations about all sorts of things together. He’s getting to be a bit more of a talker with others too. On a recent trip to the zoo he asked several of the zoo keepers questions (something his brother has never found intimidating, but that has been daunting for him). Some things have stayed the same though. For example, since discovering Chinese lion dances last year, his interest in all things related to Chinese culture has just grown. This year we attended lion dance shows for the Lunar New Year and watched the Dragon boat races from the Toronto Island in the summer. I am learning a lot from his passion.

My eldest started Junior High this year! He’s eleven, which is an interesting age somewhere between child and teen. This year his love of reading for pleasure has blossomed and he is very much into graphic novels and Japanese style mangas. He’s always loved stories, but thanks to some very successful vision therapy (which helped making reading more comfortable for his eyes) now he can read what he likes on his own. His passion for video games has also grown and his improved reading skills make games like those in the Zelda series much more enjoyable. He is also gaining skills in off-road biking, something he and his dad have been doing together.

Both boys are continuing with Aikido and swimming, and it’s been a joy to watch them gain confidence in both. They are also both nurturing a love of building and Lego sets have been a fun outlet. While I like to follow the instructions, my boys are master builders. They build amazing creations straight out of their heads. The younger one has an engineer’s brain and makes all sorts of interesting buildings and vehicles. The older one is a story teller and weaves full adventures with the things he builds.

Hubby continues to thrive working as a bike mechanic and is now a lead mechanic at Cycle Solutions. This year the job has been less seasonal than previous years, which is great because it means more people are riding through the winter and he gets to keep them riding safely year-round. The job also feeds his love of riding bikes and (even he admits that) it helps him grow his personal bike and parts collection. It helps the family too since he keeps all of our bikes in good working order, including the one I abuse by cycle commuting year-round. This year we’ve also been mountain biking as a family. Some of our favourite places are the trails in the Durham Forest.

As for me, professionally, my secondment last year turned into a longer term position and I’m delighted to be working in a team of three female analysts managing data on university research funding and intellectual property. There have also been many opportunities for professional development including a chance to present my work at a CIRPA conference in Calgary. I found Calgary delightful, especially the proximity of the gorgeous Rocky Mountains and getting to see my cousin (after two decades!). Personally, I continue to use my free time volunteering with bird census and bird banding as well as learning more about creative writing. This year I joined a writing group to stay motivated. I also still write Spotlight pieces for Wader Study, which keeps me up-to-date with research in the world of shorebirds (a world that greatly expanded my horizons during my graduate work).

In addition to my solo trip to Calgary, we’ve also travelled as a family. The boys and I spent our (now customary) few days at a rented cottage in Oxbow Lake (near Algonquin Park) and we all went to Panama to visit hubby’s family at the end of August. Now that the boys are bigger, we rented a car and explored a little farther afield, which was lovely. We’ve also had several visits to Collingwood. The area is great for biking in summer and skiing in winter. This means the boys are learning to ski and I am back on skis after more than a decade hiatus. Indeed, I am writing part of this review from Collingwood where my brother and his girlfriend graciously hosted Christmas dinner.

All the best for 2019!

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Year in Review 2017

25 December 2017, Toronto

Another year has passed and it is a pleasure to sit and reflect upon what has happened in 2017. I’m writing from Toronto this year and it is nice to be celebrating Christmas in the cold weather (for me at least). I’m delighted that we’re having a white Christmas too. As I write this the snow is falling thickly outside. What a change in weather from last year when I wrote from our visit to family in Panama.

This year we have a kid in double digits, my eldest is 10 and comes up to my chin. He is in grade 5 this year and has a teacher who understands him well. He’s in his second year in extended French and the program is very good for his strengths in oral language. He’s also been working hard on his reading and writing and has been making great gains. And we finally have a better idea of how to help him and are looking into strategies to support him at home and school to prepare for next year when he enters grade 6 and Junior High. He continues to be the most extroverted person in our family and I like to hear him tell me about the goings-on of his school friends when we chat at bedtime. Now many of the stories are about who “likes” whom. My little boy is growing up.

My youngest is 7 and comes to mid-chest on me now. He is in grade 2 and is thriving with an excellent teacher who manages to provide both structure and fun in the classroom. Now that he’s been at his new school for more than a year, he’s developed strong friendships. But he’s also kept old ones and we continue to have regular play dates with his best friend from his old school. He still loves dancing too and his repertoire is expanding. The big story this year was his discovery of Chinese lion dancing. He saw a performance at his school for Lunar New Year and has been hooked since then. Our living room now contains two large Chinese lanterns and an authentic kid-sized Chinese lion mask. That’s what he wanted for his birthday and I thank the internet for connecting us with someone who wanted to sell her now-grown-son’s mask. He’s been watching videos online to learn the moves and has performed for family, friends and even our co-op community.

It’s been a year of new sports for both our boys. In addition to the requisite swimming lessons and family biking, both boys were on the cross country team this year. In September, the whole family went out to run with the school Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings. I found it was a great way to wake up and it improved my mood for the rest of the day. It was also the first year our boys tried skiing and snowboarding. My eldest first went on a school trip, but on March Break the whole family had the wonderful experience of joining the Regent Park Reading Program for a day at Dagmar. We’ve also just started skating lessons and this year both boys started Aikido. They look adorable in their gis.

As for the adults, hubby rekindled his love for mountain bike racing this year and, even with some technical hurdles, still managed a few races. He continues to thrive working as a bike mechanic at Urbane Cyclist. It is close enough to commute by bike and it allows him to use his technical skills on something he is passionate about – getting people riding safely by building and fixing bikes. Though the job is still somewhat seasonal, but that seasonality has been a great help. It gives him time to set up our commuting bikes for winter, to get winter tires on the car, to get holiday shopping done, and to more safely pick up the boys in bad weather. Best of all, he has time for a new creative outlet – starting a Youtube channel – the Greasy Bench DIY!

As for me, professionally, I spent the year on a secondment doing data analysis around university research funding and intellectual property. There have been many opportunities for professional development including training in data visualization software and attending the CIRPA conference that was held in Toronto this year. I have learned an incredible amount, not the least because I have an amazing boss who has spent many years working with these data and who also knows the institution like the back of her hand. Best of all, she’s expanding her team. That means I’ll stay in this role even now that the colleague whose maternity leave I was covering has returned. I am looking forward to working in our little team of three next year and beyond.

Personally, I think we’ve all been a bit affected by news from the world outside our sheltered life. It has been a trying year to be watching world events. There have been many times this year when reading the headlines or listening to the news has made me feel like we’ve entered the apocalypse. And I am not the only one. At one point, with three hurricanes blowing in the Atlantic, the largest earthquake in a century in Mexico, wildfires burning, and the US and North Korean leaders threatening each other with nuclear weapons, my eldest asked if this was the apocalypse. I didn’t know what to say. It was easy to feel helpless and hopeless, but I didn’t want to pass all that to my child. Instead I admitted that it did feel that way, but also that we still had much to remain grateful about.

Despite world events it has been a good year for our family. The boys and I spent a lovely four days at a rented cottage in Oxbow Lake (near Algonquin Park). This is becoming a tradition for us and I love getting to spend that alone time with my boys, while hubby gets some time to himself in the city during peak cycling season. Also, my “little” brother moved to Collingwood and we spent a lovely weekend out there in August as a family. I imagine we’ll be spending more time up there in future and am looking forward to seeing it as a winter wonderful. Finally, we also did an incredible trip to Newfoundland (click to read the blog). The year has been good to us.

Wish you all the best for 2018!

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Newfoundland: Rugged, majestic, beauty


It was everywhere I looked in Newfoundland: the Long Range Mountains, the Tablelands, the sea cliffs, and the waves that crashed even in calm seas. The whole island, from Gros Morne National Park, to the Northern Peninsula, to Bonavista and then St. John’s radiated majesty.

Majesty. One lovely word that managed to crowd out the tangle of tasks, commitments, worries and inadequacies that usually fill my mind.

It was wonderful.


Looking north from the tip of the Northern Peninsula at dusk

And to think, that our Newfoundland road trip stemmed from Parks Canada’s decision to make Parks and Heritage sites free for 2017. Of course we could have used the Parks Pass anywhere in Canada. It was probably the red chairs that did it. Canada Parks “Red Chair Experience Program” was started in Gros Morne National Park and it was vistas from those Gros Morne chairs that got me hooked. By spring 2017 I knew that the proper use of the Parks Pass would require a trip to Newfoundland. Now we have our own “red chair” photos.


Bonnie Bay and the Lookout mountains

We drove nearly the entire island of Newfoundland in one gas efficient rental car, staying in cabins where we could cook our own meals and changing locations every two days. It was our family’s first real road trip and I couldn’t have planned it on my own. I had help from the experts at Linkum Tours a Newfoundland based company that helped us create a custom self-guided tour that fit our family to a tee. I highly recommend this company to anyone looking to travel in Newfoundland & Labrador.

The landscape in Newfoundland is incredible and we experienced it immediately on the drive from the airport in Deer Lake to Rocky Harbour (a town made famous in 2014 when one of two blue whales washed up on its shores). The road wound through the scenery of northern Gros Morne National Park – craggy mountains that seemed to rise out of the waters of Bonnie Bay. One such mountain is the one for which the park is named: Mount Gros Morne at 806m. In French its name means “large mountain standing alone,” or more literally “great sombre.”


Mount Gros Morne and Bonnie Bay

That afternoon we picnicked on mooseburgers at Lobster Cove Head lighthouse.


Lobster Cove Lighthouse

On our postprandial hike we scampered on fabulous layered limestone, chert and quartz stone. Their tilted and alternating layers clearly showed the geological periods in which they were created.


Rocks at Lobster Cove Head and Bonnie Bay

We also delighted in tide pools with seaweed (the most common were Fucales sp. like bladder wrack with air bladders to keep them upright at high tide), tiny shrimp-like crustaceans, periwinkles (sea snails), and even anemones. Finally the hike took us through dense, gnarled white spruce forest that looked enchanted in the light of the setting sun.


Gnarled and windblown forest that locals call tuckamore and I think looks enchanted

We ended the day with a stop at the Rocky Harbour playground, which should be nominated for playground with the best view. Then it was bedtime at Mountain Range Cottages.


Should be nominated for playground with the best view

The next day we drove from Rocky Harbour up the west coast of the northern peninsula on a highway known as the Viking Trail. The road took us past the stunning cliffs of the Long Range Mountains, part of the northern most Appalachian Mountains, and along the rugged shores of the Gulf of St. Lawrence.


The Viking Trail – a road with a view

We stopped at Port Au Choix, a UNESCO World Heritage site, which has been occupied by human groups almost continuously for over four thousand years. First came the Maritime Archaic Indians, then Palaeoeskimo groups who lived in the area from 2800 to 1300 BP when the climate was cooler, and finally with a warming climate, ancestral Beothuk natives. Equaling the cultural history of the area was Port au Choix’s natural history, which we learned of hiking through the unique limestone barrens landscape.


Hiking the Dorset Trail through limestone barrens

The limestone and dolomite of the area originated as coral in a tropical sea 500 million years ago. The ancient seabed was pushed up when the African and American continental plates collided and has been weather by years of rain and frost. In some places, like the limestone barrens, this unrelenting weathering has shattered the rock to gravel. In other places, like the viewpoint along the trail, one can still find fossilized spirals (probably sea snails), evidence of the rock’s marine origin. From the top of the hill we also saw caribou, which use the limestone barrens in the summer and move inland to denser forest in winter.


Fossil finding and caribou watching on the hill

After Port au Choix we continued to the northern tip of the Northern Peninsula where we stayed at the delightful Beachy Cove Cabins (loved the handmaid quilts on the beds). It was a mere 5-minute drive from another UNESCO Heritage site, L’Anse aux Meadows, which marks the place where Leif Erikson established a small Viking village over 1000 years ago. We needed our toques the morning we visited, but the chill north winds and gloomy sky only heightened the experience. The replica sod houses truly kept out the chill and the Parks Canada staff and volunteers, gave us a hands-on experience of what Viking life might have been like in the small settlement.


Replica of the Viking village at L’Anse aux Meadows

Then we wandered the soft green mounds of the actual archeological site and wondered how anyone might have found the remains of the village under this wind swept meadow. It is no wonder that the settlement remained buried for a thousand years.


he remains of the real village lay under the meadow

Then in 1960, George Decker, a citizen of the small fishing hamlet of L’Anse aux Meadows, led explorer Helge Ingstad to what the locals called the “old Indian camp”. Then, under the direction of archaeologist Anne Stine Ingstad (Helge’s wife), they carried out seven archaeological excavations there from 1961 to 1968. The Ingstads had studied the Icelandic sagas and had a hunch that this might be a Viking site. The Norse origin was confirmed based on similarities between artifacts found at the site and artifacts at sites in Greenland and Iceland.

We learned the story of the site’s origin by listening to translations of two Icelandic sagas in the book Voyages to Vinland. The sagas describe the voyage of Bjarni Herjólfsson who sighted land to the west of Greenland when blown off course en route from Iceland to Greenland in 985. Though he returned to Greenland without making landfall, around the year 1000 Leif Erikson approached Bjarni, purchased his ship, and mounted an expedition. Lief found a rocky and desolate place he named Helluland (land of flat stones; probably Baffin Island), then a forested place he named Markland (land of forests; possibly Labrador) and finally a verdant place with a mild climate he named Vinland (land of meadows or wine – depending on the pronunciation). There he built a small settlement that lasted 20 years.

Of course, when the Norse arrived they did not find a land devoid of people. As we learned at Port au Choix, native cultures had been on the Northern Peninsula for thousands of years. On the trail at L’Anse aux Meadows there is a sculpture called “The meeting of two worlds”. Created by Luben Boykov and Richard Brixel.


The meeting of two worlds sculpture, symbolizing the meeting of human migrants and explorers who had circumvented the globe.

It symbolizes the meeting of human migrations: One that spread west from Africa through Asia and entered North America by land across the Bering straight (the First Peoples); and another that spread east from Africa through Europe and to North America by sea. The two groups met – and human migration circumvented the globe – when the Norse met the First Peoples at L’Anse aux Meadows.

That evening we went to St Anthony to hike Whale Watchers Trail.


Meadows in full flower on Whale Watchers Trail

The stunning trail took us on a series of boardwalks and short stairways across cliff top meadows in full flower and to an amazing lookout over the Atlantic Ocean and the cliffs of Fishing Point.


Equalling views of the landscape were views of whales. We must have seen 10 humpbacks in the hour and a half we were there. We saw them blowing, we saw their fins, we even a nice close “whale tail” (as my nearly 7 year old says). To my delight there were also Northern Gannets and Black Guillemots.

The next morning we went out in a Zodiac with Linkum Tours to share the water with the whales.


The Quirpon Lighthouse Inn where Linkum Tours guests can stay to whale watch

We saw Atlantic White-sided Dolphins jumping quite near to the boat, and then hidden away in a cove, a mother humpback whale and her calf. We saw them both surface, blown and dive (more whale tails). Best of all, we heard them! The cliffs acted like an amplifier transmitting the whale voices into the air. Watching and hearing them was magic.



With whale voices still in our heads, we drove back down the Northern Peninsula past the low, gnarled tuckamore forests interspersed with fishing villages that dotted the coast like pearls. The air was clear and we could also see across the straight of Belle Isle into Quebec and Labrador. Our walking stop was a trail in Gros Morne National Park that took us across a huge peat bog to the base of the inland freshwater fiord of Western Brook Pond.


On the boardwalk through the peat bog to Western Brook Pond

Western Brook Pond sits within the Lone Range Mountains in the northern part of the park. The fiord was carved when glaciers removed soft sediment from between the harder rock during the most recent ice age (from about 25,000 to 10,000 years ago). It became an inland “pond” (in Newfoundland inland fiords are called ponds) when it was cut off from the sea as land that had been pushed down by the weight of the ice sheets rebounded.


The fiord, Western Brook Pond, is between those cliffs in the background

After a night in the Southeast hills of Gros Morne at Middlebrook Cottages & Chalets we were ready to explore the south side of Gros Morne National Park. We visited the Discovery Center on the South Arm of Bonne Bay and learned about the geology that makes Gros Morne famous. Then we hiked the Tablelands, a plateau of barren yellow rock, to experience it for ourselves.


Barren Tablelands to the left and forested Lookout Hills to the right

From the trail it was amazing to look at the valley between the Tablelands and the Lookout Hills. On one side, the cliffs were barren yellow rock, but astonishingly just across the valley, there were trees on the slopes. Little grows on the Tablelands because the rock is not earth’s crust. Rather, it is a chuck of mantle that was dragged up half a billion years ago when Laurasia (Ancient North America) and Gondwana (Ancient Africa) collided. This chunk of mantle left on the surface, is part of what makes Gros Morne a UNESCO heritage site. This, and other wonders of geology in the 1,805 square kilometre park, provided the scientific evidence needed to support the theory of Continental Drift.


Walking off trail on the earth’s mantle in the Tablelands

The Tablelands are barren because mantle is usually buried deep in the earth and is very unstable on the surface. This mantle rock is called peridotite and it is full of heavy metals and other chemicals that are toxic to plant life. It is yellowy orange because the iron in it is literally rusting when exposed to oxygen on the earth’s surface. Nevertheless, we saw several hardy plants that managed to grow (albeit sparsely) on the Tablelands. Most do this by being carnivorous, since the rocks of the barrens provide no sustenance. One such plant is the Pitcher Plant, which is the provincial flower. Another is the Common Butterwort, which has basal rosette leaves where glandular hairs secrete a sticky glue to catch insects. After much plant and rock watching, we completed the trail and were rewarded with the stunning and glacially carved Winter House Brook Canyon.


Walking towards Winter House Brook Canyon in the Tablelands

We spent the evening in Trout River, the tiny hamlet where a blue whale, whose skeleton ended up at the Royal Ontario Museum, washed up in April 2014. We walked the boardwalk overlooking the beach where the whale was found and took photos of the colourful houses overlooking the water.


Trout River Beach

At the wharf we saw fishing boats and fishers cleaning their catch. Then we dined at the Seaside Restaurant where we had cod and capelin fresh from the sea. Out the windows, we could see fishing boats returning to Trout River as the sun set over the cliffs. Back at the cottage, we built a fire and toasted marshmallows with the Milky Way arching across the night sky above us.

It was hard to leave the next day with the Tablelands ablaze in the morning light, but receding in the rear-view mirror. We covered the 600 km crossing of the Newfoundland from west to east much faster than the same distance going “up north” of Toronto. The Trans Canada highway was in good condition and there were frequent passing lanes to help smaller cars pass trucks as they slowed on the long inclines. As we learned in Gros Morne, the rock we crossed depicts the earth’s continental history – the collision of Laurasia and Gondwana that created the Appalachian Mountains (stretching Georgia to Newfoundland). The creation of the Atlantic Ocean after the continental plates split and water filled the space between them and the fascinating fact that the Africa plate left a small piece of itself behind. That piece now forms the eastern side of the Appalachians, including Bonavista and the Avalon Peninsula of Newfoundland. We left the rock of Laurasia behind and entered the rock of Ancient Gondwana.

Our rest stop was Terra Nova National Park where we hiked the Coastal Trail to Pissamere Falls.


Hiking boreal forest in Terra Nova National Park

The shore of Newman Sound looked like a lake in Ontario rather than the coast because the sea comes so far inland. But evidence that we were on the coast came when the trail met the beach and we found jellyfish, crab carapaces, and bladder wrack marking tide lines.


Beach on the Coastal Trail beside Newman Sound

That night, our lodgings in Bertrem’s Beach House, a two-story cottage painted vibrant red, enchanted us all. We loved the cozy low ceilings and the kids took to hiding in the little upstairs nook beside the staircase where the ocean view was wonderful.


The view from Bretrem’s Beach House in Bonavista

The next day, we had the puffins we’d come east to see – first at the Cape Bonavista Lighthouse and later (and even closer) at Elliston. Newfoundland & Labrador is home to hundreds of Atlantic Puffin colonies and the puffin is the provincial bird. The birds visit Newfoundland and other sea cliff islands around the North Atlantic to breed. They spend the winters out at sea.



We watched as these delightful birds entered and exited their cliff-top burrows and brought fish for their young (they eat capelin, herring, hake and other small fish). At times they all flew up and spiralled over the colony, possibly a protective behaviour.


Watching puffins at Cape Bonavista

Although few terrestrial predators can reach their island burrows, gulls are a problem and at Elliston we witnessed a gull eating an adult Puffin. This is natural, and escaping predation is part of the reason puffins mainly live at sea. It is also why their young fledge at night. But it was still heartbreaking, especially knowing that puffins mate for life and raise only one young per year over a six-week period.


Puffin site in Elliston


Watching puffins at Elliston


At Elliston we also stopped at Sandy Cove Beach where we joined a flock of Sanderlings wetting our feet in the cold North Atlantic waters then scurrying away from the waves. Elliston is known as the root cellar capital of the world and we explored several root cellars (one of which contained an art installation). In the days before electricity, these dug out structures kept vegetables and other foods cool in the summer and not frozen in the winter. More than 133 root cellars have been documented in Elliston and some of them have survived two centuries.


Root Cellar at Elliston

Interspersed with puffin watching, we also hiked a small bit of the Cape Shore Trail to see the statue of John Cabot (Giovanni Caboto). In May 1497, the Italian explorer left Bristol, England on orders from King Henry VII to find an eastern passage to Asia. He found North America instead. No one knows for certain where he fist landed on 24 June 1497, but local tradition places his first steps in the New World at Cape Bonavista.

The sea caves at Dungeon Provincial Park were also a treat and we learned that such caves are formed when the sea pounds at cliffs and washes away the softer sedimentary rock. The hard rock then fractures and the waves pour into the spaces turning crevices into caves. Eventually the waves form a tunnel all the way around and when the roof collapses you get a hole – like the “dungeon”. Eventually the sea will carve out a sea stack where only a pillar of stubborn igneous rock remains.


Dungeon Provincial Park

We saw many sea stacks on the Skerwick Trail the next day. This 5.3 km loop skirts the north and south coasts of Skerwink Head, a rocky peninsula between Trinity and Port Rexton. The founder of this trail says it has the most scenery per linear foot than any other trail in Newfoundland and I believe it. We picnicked at a wooden lookout overlooking cliffs and sea. It was one of many spectacular picnic spots this trip. From our picnic spot we even spotted a whale far out at sea.


Hiking the Skerwink Trail

We also visited the Ryan Premises, another excellent Parks Canada Heritage site housed in a cluster of 19th century clapboard buildings over looking the Bonavista harbour. There we learned about Newfoundland’s fishing history and in particular the cod. Codfish have been part of Newfoundland’s culture and history for hundreds of years. First Peoples fished them and John Cabot commented on codfish abundance when he arrived in 1497.


The Ryan Premises in Bonavista

For centuries the Europeans joined the codfish game and salted Newfoundland cod was fished, processed, and then shipped internationally. The fresh-frozen fish industry took over from salt cod after World War I and industrialized overfishing grew after World War II. By 1992 fish stocks had crashed and there was a moratorium on cod fishing. Newfoundlanders now needed to find a new way to make a living. A few ended up as interpreters at the Ryan Premises, sharing their personal connection to the fishing industry.

After days of good weather, we got soaked along the Trans Canada Highway from the Bonavista Peninsula to St. Johns. Gusty winds made our little rental car shudder and rain came down in sheets. We’d driven right into the outer edges of tropical cyclone ten. The weather stayed miserable in St John’s into the evening and thwarted our plans for dinner and a walk around the harbor. Instead we stayed close to our hotel and went for dinner at Mary Brown’s (a fried chicken chain that originated in Newfoundland and is now the fastest growing franchise in Canada). Because Newfoundlanders are so friendly, we ended up in conversation with one of the workers and she told us that we were eating in the location that trains people for franchises all over Canada. Small world.

The next day it was still windy and wet – the perfect weather for indoor exhibits at the Johnson Geo Center on Signal Hill. In fact, most of the exhibits are not just indoors, but underground. An entire wall of the Geo Center is rock exposed during the excavation for the building.


The rock wall at the Geo Center

Of the many things we learned is that the rocks of Newfoundland and Labrador are incredibly old. Some of the rocks in the Torngat Mountains (Labrador) are 3.6 to 3.9 billion years old. Newfoundland’s rocks are newer, but still over half a billion years old, which is 450 million years older than the rocks of the Rocky Mountains. This is why we don’t find dinosaur fossils in Newfoundland. Dinosaurs may have walked on the rocks, but couldn’t have been fossilized in them because the rocks were already made when dinosaurs roamed.


The rocks of Signal Hill were there way before dinosaurs

Instead, in places like the UNESCO Heritage site at Mistaken Point, Precambrian fossils have been found (e.g., even older than the fossils of the Burgess Shale). These imprints of ancient soft bodies creatures were preserved because a volcanic eruption poured ash into the sea. The ash landed on the animals and eventually fossilized them (in much the same way that the people of Pompeii were preserved).

By the time we left the Geo Center the rain had stopped and the weather was clearing. We went to Signal Hill and hiked to the iconic Cabot Tower, built between 1897 and 1900 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of John Cabot’s landfall. The tower was also the place where Guglielmo Marconi received the world’s first transatlantic wireless signal in 1901. The Morse code signal for “S” travelled from Cornwall, England to the Cabot Tower.


Imperial Powder Magazine and the Cabot Tower behind

The views of St John’s, its harbor and the rugged coast were spectacular.


We could see the Fort Amherst Lighthouse across the Narrows and in the distance the two lighthouses at Cape Spear where we headed there next.


Fort Amherst Lighthouse and the coast towards Cape Spear

The historic lighthouse at Cape Spear is nearly 200 years old and the oldest surviving in Newfoundland and Labrador. The other is a more modern working version. We hiked up to both and got breathtaking views of pink cliffs, blue seas and waves crashing as far as the eye could see in either direction.


Lighthouses at Cape Spear


The 200-year lighthouse at Cape Spear

Then we hiked to the most easterly point in Canada. Standing with our backs to the sea we knew that all of North America stretched out in front of us and there was nothing behind us until Ireland.


We finished the day with a walk downtown (taking advantage of the free street parking after 6 pm) and an amazing meal at the Bagel Café on Duckworth St.

We spent our last half-day in Newfoundland wandering. First along Harbor Drive watching big container ships get packed and ready to go. Then back alternating between Water St. and Duckworth St., taking in the “Jelly Bean Rows” of colourfully painted townhouses and also exploring the old business district and the pub district along George St.


Jelly bean townhouses, St. John’s


George St. Mural by Sarah O’Rourke-Whelan

Then we headed to the historic fishing village of Quidi Vidi. Where we watched artists work at the Quidi Vidi Plantation, a craft enterprise incubator (like a business incubator for emerging artists). From there we crossed a small footbridge and headed up a gravel path to the entrance of the East Coast Trail. There we joined locals out enjoying the Labour Day weekend picking blue berries and walking their dogs.


On the plane home – heading back to reality – I reviewed my pictures and marveled that we’d had only about 24 hours of bad weather in a 10-day trip. Newfoundland showed us her beauty in late summer glory – full of sunshine and free of bugs. We were fortunate. Still, my pictures hold evidence that Newfoundland is not a place of benign weather: from the tuckamore forest bent away from driving wind and crashing seas, to the gravel of the barrens, literally shattered by freeze thaw cycles and “death by a thousand cuts” weathering. Newfoundland’s beauty comes from this weather and its majesty was born from mountains bulldozed up in violet collision and scoured clean by glaciers.

It was an incredible trip.


A hugely successful trip

I can’t wait to go back. Perhaps we’ll try a different season and next time and I’ll stand on a cliff top by those bent tuckamore trees and howl right into that salty wind above a pounding surf. I’ll howl “Thank you” for Newfoundland’s raw, majestic beauty.

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On this day (before)

Today seems like a good day for reflection.

By this day some of us have built homes, started businesses, taught in classrooms, had children, led companies, patented inventions, filed for bankruptcy, written books, completed theses, finished marathons, run away, saved lives, cured illness, eased pain, flown planes, climbed mountains, travelled the world, lived in monasteries, had relationships, lost relationships, survived war, or had the luxury of living in peace.

Some of us are just beginning; some of us are nearing the end. No one has done it all – and that’s okay. The paths are many and this world needs all of our contributions and all of our diversity – especially on this day (before).

One this day (before) I remember who I am: curious, compassionate, sensitive, vulnerable, able to learn from mistakes, human. Not driven by fear, greed or hatred. On this day I remember who I am and who I want to remain.

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Year in Review 2016

Written 24 December 2016, Panama


How to build a snowman in 30 Celsius heat? Use plastic drinking cups!

This is my 12th “year in review”. It’s hard to believe that the first was written from Texel Island in the Netherlands in Dec 2005). In 2008, I wrote from Panama as we introduced our first born to his “abuelos”. This is the second year, since I started writing the “year in review” that I am writing from Panama. This year the “abuelos” have two big kids from Toronto with whom to celebrate. Ray is 9 and Lucas is 6. It is unbelievable how quickly the time has flown!

When I wrote this it was snowing and cold at our current home in Toronto while we were sweating it out in Panama’s humid transition from the wet to dry season. This will be Ray’s second Christmas in a hot climate, but the first that he remembers. It is certainly Lucas’s first. For hubby, it is what he knows from childhood. I’ve had several Christmases in hot climates, most in Panama from 2000 to 2003, but also one in Mauritania in 2006. For someone who grew up where it is cold in December, sweating on Christmas still doesn’t feel quite right, but I don’t miss trying to get around in the snow.

It has been a trying year for many in terms of world events (depending on your point of view), but it has been a fairly good year for our family. Other travels this year included a lovely few days for the boys and I, with very close friends, at a rented cottage in Oxbow Lake (near Algonquin Park). As a family, we also did another wonderful canoe trip, this time further north in Temagami. This trip to Panama is our send off to 2016 (though we will be back in Toronto to ring in the New Year).

Our boys continue to grow physically, intellectually and emotionally. This year they started in a new school so that Ray could begin extended French. He is in grade 4 and has 50% of his classes in French and 50% in English. This means that Ray is starting on his third language. He’s made friends at his new school and is generally doing well. Physically, he is developing skills in running (he joined the cross-country team), swimming (he joined the swim team), biking, and other general sports like monkeying on the monkey bars. He continues to be our social and talkative guy, but despite this gregariousness, he remains our pensive one. He thinks and feels deeply and he is working on strategies to deal with strong emotions. The kids and I have been experimenting with mindfulness (the book Sitting like a Frog is a great intro for kids) and we are all finding it helpful.

Lucas is in grade 1!     He struggled a bit with the transition to the new school (he missed his old school and his friends) but he is now making new friends and is doing well. He remains very kind, always quick to help others and to ensure that everything is fair for everyone. He is developing his logical, mathematical and organizational skills with patterns, puzzles and (of course) collecting rocks. Like his brother, he is developing his physical skills in biking and swimming. He also still loves singing and dancing – and to my delight – he still skip-walks when he is excited. Even though he is firmly in kid territory now (not anywhere near a baby), he will always be my baby.

As for the adults, hubby has found a place that he loves professionally. As bike culture continues to increase in Toronto, he found a job as a bike mechanic at Urbane Cyclist. It is a workers co-op with like-minded colleagues and it is close enough to bike commute. In fact it is also close to the University of Toronto, so he and I can sometimes meet for lunch. The job allows hubby to use his technical skills on something he is passionate about – getting people riding safely by building and fixing bikes. He is basically getting paid for his hobby. Not bad. The job is still somewhat seasonal, but even that works since it allows us to do things like visit Panama for the winter holidays.

This has been a busy year for me professionally. Last year I learned the day-to-day operations of graduate student education and funding (it reminds me of ecology in its complexity) and I began to research several topics around enhancing graduate funding. This year I added to that by deepening the research and data analysis and working with senior leaders to implement several major projects that included an increase to grad student funding, better transparency around that funding, optimizing international student funding, and new programs for professionalization and progress through PhD programs. There were certainly challenges, but overall I have learned an immense amount this year! I’ve deepened my understanding of the intricacies of graduate education and funding, and how senior leaders make tough decisions in higher education amid multiple, and often conflicting, demands. Next year I will start a yearlong secondment doing similar work but around research and research funding.

The year 2016 has been trying for many, but for my family it has been a year of strengthening our souls and our relationships. It seems prudent to look for solidity in oneself and close relationships when other aspects of life are turbulent. I wish you all the best for 2017!

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Temagami is a land steeped in natural and human history. People have lived on the land for thousands of years. More recently, people have come to conquer the land and take from it, while others have come to conserve it.

Temagami became part of my history three years ago when my father told me that it was on his “bucket list”. It was wild places like Temagami that drew my Swiss father to Canada in the first place. Now that he was dying of cancer, it was time to see this wild place. Before the cancer struck he would have been able to hike, canoe and camp. Even with cancer eating away at his body, he was able to take a trip with my mother to a lodge in Lake Temagami and hike out to some of the ancient trees. Temagami became part of my parent’s history. This summer I decided to take my family out to Temamagi and, the week before Labour Day*, it became part of our history.

Last year we took our first family canoe trip and loved it. Temagami was further north and we planned to stay out longer. Again, we wanted a guided family trip. It seems decadent; but as working parents, we needed a restful vacation even if out in the wild. And paying guides to do what they love, while sharing their expertise with us, fits with our values. I found Camp Temagami online and was taken by their philosophy. I wanted to experience a bit of that with my family.


“The forest looks pointy, Mami”, nearly 6-year-old Lucas observed.

It did.

We had watched remnants of Carolinian forest around Toronto switch to rich farmland, then to mixed deciduous forest (maple/beech) in the area around Algonquin Park. Now, as we approached the Lake Temagami Access Road about 100 km north of North Bay, the forest was mainly boreal (pines, spruce and other conifers with the odd paper birch and alders in the wet areas).

It felt pretty good to leave our car, and civilization, behind at the end of that access road. We reached “base camp”, at the top of the southwest arm of Lake Temagami, by boat. The name of the lake comes from Te-mee-ay-gaming in Ojibwa and means “deep water by the shore”. Then next morning, we left the shore and headed into that deep water in gorgeous, blue wood canvas canoes (built by Hugh Stewart). The canoes were well packed by our guides Emily and Sophie with traditional canoeing gear. I’ve been canoe tripping before and am used to back packs and even bear barrels. But we were stocked with gear similar to what the Voyagers traditionally used. The wooden boxes are wannigans. They look cumbersome, but can be carried quite efficiently with the aid of tumplines. They also fit well into a canoe and double as tables and chairs at camp.


Packed canoes off Ant Island. Photo: D. Buehler.

Our first stop of the trip was a short hike to several very large and old white pines. They towered overhead and their circumference at the base was large enough that the arm spans of my husband and I – together – were not enough to encircle them (we’re talking some serious tree hugging). This was just a taste of Temagami’s old growth forest. There was majesty in the towering trees. There was life in the air, fragrant with the smell of pine needles. There was a sacred stillness when we walked with footfalls muffled by years of fallen pine needles (well, until the kids started asking questions, but that was wonderful too).


Towering white pine. Photo: D. Buehler.

The land that produced these magnificent trees was scoured by glaciers more than 10,000 years ago. The Anishnabai have been enjoying the area’s beauty for at least 6,000 years after migrating from the east coast of North America. They too find spiritual significance amongst the towering trees – in particular the Wakimika Triangle. Although we were far from that sacred area, we were connected by trails and canoe routes – called nastawgans – that have been used by the Anishnabai for thousands of years.

Of course “tree huggers” like us are not the only visitors to Temagami. Clashes between loggers and environmentalists have been going on for years. Perhaps the most famous was the Temagami Wilderness Society’s Red Squirrel Road blockade from September to December 1989. The conflict involved the extension of the Red Squirrel logging road into Anishnabai territory. The dispute even reached Toronto in April 1990 when protesters came to Queens Park and then followed the Premier David Peterson around for a week with a 4-meter chainsaw emblazoned with the words Temagami Chainsaw Massacre.

However, all was peaceful for us on Lake Temagami in late summer 2016. We enjoyed three nights out, each one different and each one in a lovely, secluded campsite.

There were trails to explore,


Temagami trail. Photo: D. Buehler.

breath taking “dining room” views


A room with a view. Photo: D. Buehler.

and quite bays for an evening paddle or swim.


Anyone for a paddle or swim? Photo: D. Buehler.

We slept in tents, had campfires, and learned lots of skills. For example, I learned how to chop wood, and doing it the way it is taught to 10 year old campers is also much easier for fully grown campers (no more over-the-head axe swings for me, thank you). I also learned that chopping the makes camp cooking much easier (even after heavy rain) without the use of a fuel stove. Cedar and red pine are the best for cooking fires. Spruce and maple are also good, but spruce burns very hot. Balsam fir doesn’t burn well – it is too sappy. Our guides even baked daily (bagels, cornbread, biscuits, brownies, even truffles!) on open fires using a reflector oven. The equipment and the skills our guides possessed gave us a link to the past and a deeper connection to the landscape we traveled through.


Bagels cooking on the reflector oven. Photo: D. Buehler

There were a few challenges – no canoe trip is complete without them – but it was nothing our guides couldn’t handle. They kept the fire going (and astonishingly the bagels baking) through a thunderstorm that eventually had our family take refuge in the tent.


Sometimes it rains. Photo: D. Buehler

The Temagami area has been described as “Algonquin on steroids” and on days with fairly strong north winds, I stared at an expanse of white caps (on just a tiny piece of Lake Temagami) and knew why. But our guides skilfully detoured us south (riding the waves) through wind blocking islands to make crossings safely.

All of us stretched our boundaries: Last year Lucas was afraid to ride with the guides in the canoe, this year he vied with his gregarious brother for turns in the guide’s boat and talked their ears off too! My tropical husband swam in Temagami’s bone chilling water. Nearly 9-year-old Ray jumped from a 6 foot high rock (several times). I portaged the camp’s heaviest canoe with a tumpline (only about 50m, but still).

Even back at base camp the trip had lessons to teach. Ray wanted to continue expanding his jumping skills from the camp’s 15.4 foot (nearly 5 meter) jumping platform. In the end he chickened out (to my relief), but I jumped off it (to test the fall). I’ve jumped from a similar height before, but it was still scary. The way to do it was to walk to the end, then walk right off, no looking down, no over-thinking. Commit and just do it. Perhaps this is a good metaphor for other things in life.


Commit and just do it. Photo: D. Buehler.

Being a night owl, my favourite parts of the trip were the evenings when Ray and I would stay up after everyone else had gone to sleep and chat by the campfire under a canopy of stars. The Milky Way stretched from the southern horizon in a huge arc over our heads. We wished upon shooting stars and, on our last night out, even saw a few flickers of the Northern Lights. In the deep darkness of Temagami it was easy to understand why humans before us saw God (or Gods) up there in the heavens. As a trained evolutionary biologist I saw no traditional God, but standing awestruck with my son, I knew I was surrounded by a power much greater than myself.

* I realize this is posted just past the Thanksgiving weekend. Fall is a busy time. I am thankful for the long weekend that gave me time to blog about the last week of summer :-).

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