Sunday, February 22, 2009

Home Again

I have been home a week now, and have settled back into my normal routine. I have picked up the reins of my life, clicked my tongue and hollered "Giddyap!" and off I go. I am so glad to be back home with my own family, to be in my own home and sleep in my own bed. But it wasn't easy to leave Alberta and the people there that I love.

With such a big family, there are a lot of good-byes. Thankfully, the internet has made the world smaller, and even in an enormous country like Canada, my brothers and sisters are as close as my computer. Ah, but Mom and Dad are a different story. A phone hug is not the same as a real hug.

Thankfully, my flight was early in the day. My sister Judy picked me up for the short drive to the airport, and with a few tears and plenty of hugs, we left my parents' home, loaded down with much more luggage than what I came with. Judy and I marvelled over the thick ice fog, an unusual atmospheric condition in this part of the world. It was very beautiful, and with a little time to spare, I was eager to try a few photos.

I was hoping to get a good shot of the oil pump that I knew was near the highway. I had managed a shot of a grain elevator, and the oil pump is the other great icon of my home province. Alas, the fog was so thick, I couldn't see the pump from the highway, and had to leave it for next time.

We drove slowly through the muffling cloak of white, with visibility only about fifteen or twenty yards. A pair of horses grazed unconcerned, pawing through the snow to the grass below. Ice rimed everything, turning ordinary things into crystal beauty. Judy, being a good sport, was happy to stop for me to capture the ethereal images.

The fog opened before us and closed behind. I pondered the metaphor. I wanted to be able to look ahead, to reassure myself that my parents would continue to be healthy and safe, to see my own life, home and family in order and progressing as I would like, that my siblings would continue to be happy and prosperous. I wanted to look back and see if I had made all the right choices, if I had really done my best by my family, my parents and myself. But the fog is thick, and no one can really see very far. They can only guess at the general shape of things, and do their best to choose the right thing at the right time.

Leaving Alberta made me a little sad, especially knowing that we would not be able to afford another trip for quite some time. My flight was delayed because of the fog, and I had plenty of time to sit and look out the window, consciously turning my thoughts from the sadness of leaving to the joy of returning. I missed my husband so much; his solid presence in my life is like a rock no matter where I am, and I longed for the comfort of his strong arms around me. I would be very glad to be back home soon.

Toronto was clear and beautiful from the air. We banked over the city, and the lights were laid out below us like a carpet of jewels. I was eager to land so I could get the drive back to Niagara out of the way and run into the arms of my waiting family. It was clear and cold, all the snow melted away from a recent rain. I looked out the window of the car at the landscape rushing by, just as the years rush by, and I am glad of my sanctuary at home, where there is peace and stability.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Fond Farewell

I am coming to the end of my visit, and have already said my good-byes to most of my family. Today, my last full day in Alberta, I am in a neighbouring town, where my sister Judy lives, for a walk in the woods.

Her house overlooks the beautiful North Saskatchewan River valley, and in the summer it is a green paradise of tall pines, birch and poplars, with the rush of the river far below creating sweet music in counterpoint to the singing of the birds. Now, in the middle of winter, the snow is still thick in most spots, the river is mostly frozen, and there is a soft silence wrapping us in stillness as we walk the well-packed path.

Judy and I, and her yellow lab Hawkeye, wander the woods, enjoying the peace, the clean chilly air, and the enthusiastic romping of the dog. We chat about inconsequentials, enjoying the view and pausing often so I can take a few photos. A dormant hornet's nest hangs like a great grey fruit, waiting for spring to resume its busy life.

It seems we are there only a few minutes, but it's almost an hour before we are back at the house for a cup of tea. We drink, we talk, we laugh, as sisters do, picking up where we left off at my last visit so long ago. I am glad we'll have a few minutes longer tomorrow, when she gives me a lift to the airport.

There never seems to be enough time to say all I want to say to my family. I wish I could visit more often, and stay longer, but I miss my own family and my home when I am away. Really, no matter how long I am here, will I ever have the right words to say? To tell my parents how grateful I am for the sacrifices they made for me and my brothers and sisters? To tell my sisters how much I admire them, am inspired by them? To tell my brothers how I count on their strength and friendship? Words are not enough. I can only hug each one, and tell them I love them.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Prairie Dawn

It’s a beautiful, clear morning. The setting moon, just a couple of days past full, is so bright as it shines in my bedroom window that it wakes me up a little before dawn. The stars are still sparkling like jewels as I climb out of bed, eager to be out.

I am going in search of a prairie icon – the grain elevator. These enormous structures were once seen next to the railroad tracks in almost every small town and village. Their main function was to store grain until it could be shipped by rail, but they also served as signposts visible for great distances, with the name of the town emblazoned on the side. Sadly, these once-important structures have mostly disappeared, and the rural landscape just isn’t the same without them.

I know the elevator in my home town is long gone, but I am hopeful that perhaps some of the nearby villages may still have them. I head out of town, dressed as warmly as possible on this frosty -20 degree C morning, in the predawn dark.

South of town, with the eastern sky just starting to get rosy, I pause to admire the simple beauty of the dawn. Wide expanses of empty farmers’ fields with a frozen blanket of snow stretch before me as I watch the sun come up. A few wispy clouds above welcome the rising sun, as behind me, the moon grows large before it fades to pale blue and disappears among the pastel clouds in the west.

Off to the left, I can see an unusual sight. A layer of fog, only a couple of feet thick, hangs about six feet off the ground, creating a horizontal streak of white against the background of a line of tall evergreens.

I wait here in this peaceful spot to watch the sun rise. There is no traffic, not one vehicle passes me and no sound breaks the stillness. I keep ducking back into the nice warm van, as my camera doesn’t like these -20 temperatures, and I think I'm getting frostbite on my fingertip where I press the shutter button.

The sun rises with spectacular beauty. The rosy glow intensifies, the clouds above turn pink underneath, and soon I can see a tiny edge of brilliant orange. Swiftly it becomes a crescent, and the Sun leaps into the sky, announcing her presence with a symphony of subtle colours in the east. The brilliance is reflected in the snow, and the pinks and yellows roll out before our home star like a welcome mat, the crystal blanket sparkling like tiny stars bowing before their queen.

With my heart singing gladly at the privilege of witnessing this offering of Nature’s best, I stop in to grab a coffee before I head out to the next town down the highway, hoping they still have their elevator. No, I’m told. They too had their elevator torn down a couple of years ago, but perhaps the next town after that.

By now, I am enjoying my rustic ramblings so much that finding the elevator has become secondary. I head out west of town, sipping my hot coffee gratefully, and turn south off the highway just a couple of miles out of town. I am heading generally west and south, taking random turns and driving slow, just enjoying the country landscapes and wide open spaces of rural Alberta.

I pull over to stop often to take some pictures. The open beauty of the farmers’ fields and small woodlots touches my heart, and I am smiling to myself as I drive slowly along the gravel roads. Only twice did another vehicle pass me by, farmers in their pickup trucks, and each time they nod and wave to the stranger in their country.

On my way home now, I see a sight that’s too good to pass by. A paddock full of cows, including some calves, is right next to the road. I get out of the van and cross the narrow strip of snow to stand by the fence, breaking through the icy crust and sinking up to my knees in one spot. One cow notices me and looks at me intently, perhaps hoping for food, or perhaps just aware of a stranger nearby. Soon other cows stop what they’re doing to turn and look, and in a moment the hundred cows or so are all milling around, agitated and starting to moo. Louder and louder they bawl, with a sound that I’m sure is carrying for miles in the clear, cold air. More of the shaggy beasts pick up the cry, until I retreat hastily back to the van to let them go back to their peaceful morning.

I am pleased with my day’s photos, and I head back home to warm up and have some breakfast. I still haven’t seen any elevators, but I know that there is one left at least. It stands in Leduc, Alberta, a small city about fifteen miles down the road, preserved as an historic building. I hope I will be able to get there before I have to leave.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

A Peaceful Day

I am staying at my parents' home now, in a small town on the outskirts of Edmonton. It's not at all like southern Ontario, where large cities of many hundreds of thousands come one after another down any major highway. In Alberta, there are only a handful of sizable cities, with suburbs and small towns scattered across the prairies like seeds. There's a whole lot of nothing between here and the million souls in Edmonton!

The weather has been very clear, and not too cold, considering it's February in Alberta. The moon was full last night, the stars glittering like chips of ice against the black velvet of the night sky.
It's very peaceful here. My parents are quite elderly, both well into their eighties, but in pretty fair health for their age. They sleep a lot. This makes for a very restful stay, although I have plenty of siblings and assorted family members nearby to keep things interesting.

I'm not used to having some time to myself, and I am looking forward to having the opportunity to look around for photo subjects. My sister Kathy had brought a bunch of tulips for Mom when she brought me out of the city to Mom and Dad's house, and I take a few minutes to photograph their beauty before it fades.

Dad still climbs the short but sturdy ladder to the bird feeder to sprinkle in the sunflower seeds. The chickadees love them, and when I go outside any time during the day, I can hear them all around me, declaring themselves with their cheerful call, "Chicka-dee-dee-dee!". They are very small, and so quick it is difficult to catch them with my camera. They are less skittish than the ones near my house in Ontario, and they let me approach a little closer, but still shy enough to keep hidden in the bare branches of the hedge. I can see their beady black eyes looking back at me as I peer into the bush.

I am hoping that the cedar waxwings will come back. I didn't get a chance to photograph them yesterday when they flocked around the crab apple tree, still covered with wrinkled apples, feasting on the preserved fruit.

No luck, but I found a different treasure. A vine climbing up the outside of the gazebo near the garden, still adorned with wild cucumbers. I had never seen these before! They look like large white burrs, but the spines are soft.

Almost dusk now, and I'll have to hope for waxwings tomorrow. The sunset is beautiful, with layers of colour, as if the sun is pulling up a striped blanket over her head for the night. A peaceful ending to a quiet day.

Monday, February 9, 2009

I am happily settled in at my sister’s home in Edmonton. Always a gracious hostess, she has taken a day off work to take me out to Elk Island National Park, about forty five minutes east of the city.
So close, yet worlds apart! Edmonton is a bustling, growing city of a million people. Construction sites are everywhere, and the traffic flow is not helped by icy roads. But just a short drive away is a place of such tranquility that it seems a different world.

We are alone in the park, with only the animals for company. Still several miles from the entrance gates, we spot a magnificent bull elk browsing amid the trees. He lifts his head as we pass, the great branches of his antlers blending in with the limbs of the poplars. My breath catches in my throat, and my excited squeal is an echo of the same delight I felt as a child visiting this very same park.

We slowly drive through the gates and on into this sanctuary. Suddenly as we round a curve there is a small herd of bison, affectionately and incorrectly called buffalo, grazing in the open spaces between the trees.

I get out of Kathy’s SUV to get a better look. One enormous mountain of shaggy wool and horn, standing nearest the road, lifts his head to look at me as I cautiously edge a little closer. I’m ready to dash back to the safety of the vehicle (although in a serious one-on-one, my money would be on the buffalo!) but the powerful animal just eyes me contemplatively for a moment and goes back to his grazing. As I watch, he lowers his head into the snow, using his thick short horns to push the snow aside to get at the grass beneath. I take a few more photos, wishing for more sun, and we’re ready to move on.

The hiking trail is about 5 kilometers long, and well worth it. The weather is cold, but we are prepared with warm clothing and boots. The snow on the trail is somewhat packed by the snowmobile of the ranger, making an easier walk, but off the trail we would quickly be up to our knees in the season’s accumulation. Even with the packed trail, animal tracks are everywhere.
The forest is sparse in this area, with wide grassy spaces and low scrub bushes between the patches of great black poplars, with here and there a few young brown birches. The animals are there, the evidence plain all around us, and from time to time we hear the yipping howl of coyotes in the not-too-distance. I listen for the birds, but there is only silence.
We trot along the trail, marvelling at the beauty and the comfortable solitude.

The rat-tat-tat of a woodpecker punctuates the quietude around us, and after listening and following for several minutes, we are rewarded with a brief glimpse, too quick to identify the species, as the fair-sized bird takes wing and flies off deeper into the forest.
Nothing more disturbs the deep silence of the winter forest. Kathy and I speak quietly, not wanting to intrude on Nature’s downtime, as we continue on our way. I am surprised that I hear no birdcalls – no chickadees announcing their names, no sparrows twittering in the trees, not even the mournful caw of a crow.
All around me is an intense quiet, wrapping around me like a cloak. I can feel the quiet extending all around me for miles, nothing disturbing it, no ripples in the tranquil pond. I am at the centre of an oasis of calm, and the serenity penetrates my soul, untying knots and releasing pressure.

As we load our gear into the vehicle, I know that this peace will remain with me, and I will be able to hold onto it for as long as I need.
As we leave this beautiful natural oasis, snow begins to fall.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Family is Family

I love Alberta, my home province, and I have been eagerly anticipating my visit here since I started planning it. It is hard to get away, as anyone who runs their own business knows, and it leaves me feeling like I have one foot on the dock and one in the boat.

The flight is a little bumpy, but otherwise uneventful - the best kind. What keeps those hundreds of tons of steel and glass and people in the air, I wonder? Oh I know - aerodynamics, thrust, lift, drag, and on and on. But really, when a bird has to work so hard at it, we should count ourselves lucky that all we have to do is walk onto a plane.

I gaze out the window as the plane banks over Toronto and heads out West. Soon the city-upon-city of southern Ontario is replaced with the endless lakes of central Canada, then the flat prairie, still showing its patchwork quilt through the snow and the haze of low clouds. Ah, how I miss all that nothing!

Here at last! All the jumping through hoops is worth it when I see my sister Kathy waiting at the bottom of the escalator at the Edmonton International Airport. It's great to see my family out here in the wild and woolly West, and the weather promises to be fairly decent for photography.

I miss my family back home already, and thank God for the virtual mailman that sends my words and thoughts back home to them, almost as they come to mind. I am enjoying settling in for some down time, as I can feel it is long past due.

A day of rest today, and then tomorrow out the Elk Island Park to see the wood bison, I hope! Stay tuned; I will be posting photos throughout my trip. I'm here for ten days - including my 50th birthday on Tuesday. Family potluck dinner, here I come!