Wise Woman Travel

Exploring the world from a female perspective

A couple of weeks ago, after a U.S. steel plant across the river shut down, Windsor, Ontario residents finally got rid of the mysterious “hum” that had plagued the city for more than 10 years. According to the lead researcher into the hum’s source, the plant’s blast furnaces had been running at higher than normal capacity, causing its foundation to reverberate intensely. Residents reported the hum wasn’t a sound, exactly, but a feeling— “a general sense of uneasiness and reverberation through one’s body.”

It’s easy to relate to that feeling of uneasiness this year, as news sources run at higher than normal capacity in their attempts to keep us informed of the current state of the COVID pandemic. While I don’t agree with people disregarding safety measures in their pursuit of “normal” summer activities, I get why they want to silence the constant COVID hum. Our foundations have been reverberating for five months, and there’s no end in sight.

But, if you’re looking for a temporary respite, you might be able to find it in a getaway to a local campsite.

In Alberta, even before the pandemic, the spontaneous Thursday decision to pack up your camping gear and head out of town the next night for a weekend away from town is a relic. And this year, the campsites are busier than they’ve ever been. When we hopped onto the Alberta Parks reservation site a few weeks ago, every site we looked at on every weekend was covered in a red X. But we discovered a Wednesday/Thursday night combo at Marten River campground in Lesser Slave Lake Provincial Park, three hours north of Edmonton. Done.

With the honey scent of clover wafting through the open truck windows, and the sun at our backs, highway 44 took us past chartreuse carpets of canola, bearded barley fields, and cattle standing in shaded windbreaks, flicking their tails in each other’s faces. Halfway up the highway, the field and pastures gave way to dense forests. Logging trucks passed us going south, trailing spruce cologne. We stopped for a tailgate picnic in the parking lot of the roadside Flatbush Recreational Center. A Lesser Slave River utility truck was parked outside the arena, but we never saw its owners. We ate our ham and cheese sandwiches in the quiet heat, the dragonflies hovering and darting after insects like tiny divebombing biplanes.

In many ways, camping is a near-perfect activity in this strangest of all summers. You can experience other people’s energy while staying safely in your own accommodation. You’ve got your own food. You don’t have to wear a mask because you’re outdoors all day. High touch surfaces are limited to water taps, garbage bins and toilet areas so as long as you practice effective hand hygiene, you’re okay on that account. If, like us, your household income is less than it was when COVID hit, camping’s a cheap escape, at $29 a night. And best of all, you’ve escaped your house, which I’m betting has devolved from the cozy sanctuary it was last March.

Our two day vacay was filled with a lot of nothing much. Poplar and pine towered over our campsite, sheltering us from the midday heat. We ate and read and walked and napped, backdropped by the same soundscape we recalled from our childhood camping days: The ring of ax head on metal tent pegs. Chicka dee dee dees. Little kids racing past on bikes and scooters. Couple banter as he backs the trailer into the narrow space between pine trees and she directs him. Delighted shrieks still echoing from the playground until twilight. At night, silence.

Over the last four months, I’ve spent a lot of time walking. I’ve always been a fan of getting places on foot and since the world changed, it’s one of the few activities that allows relatively safe social contact, gives me some physical activity, and provides a change of scene and mental outlook.

Edmonton has a great system of river valley parks, which form the largest urban green space in Canada. It includes walking trails that wind through 22 ravines. Even though I’ve lived in Edmonton virtually all my life, I’ve only thoroughly explored one of those, the Mill Creek Ravine, because it’s the closest to where I live. It’s gorgeous, but as the months have worn on, I’ve felt the need to push my ravine boundaries. So when my friend Marilyn suggested we visit Kinnaird Ravine, close to her place in central Edmonton, I was happy to go exploring with her.

One of the coolest features of this ravine is a collection of more than 60 murals, painted by youth from the Boyle-McCauley neighborhood in inner city Edmonton. Sheets of plywood were delivered to some of the agencies that engage youth in art and community projects: the only direction they received was “Paint something.”

I’ve always loved displays of public art. They’re characterized by two of the features that, for me, should underlie all artistic expression – autonomy and accessibility. Marilyn and I found both in the KinnArt collection, which decorates a retaining wall that slopes gently downhill near 82 Street and 111 Avenue (for those of you who might like to take a wander down there sometime.)

We were amused, uplifted, and touched by the artistic stories of the outdoor gallery. Here are some of my favorites.

(Look below to see what’s happening between the carrots….)

Morning, J. I just looked at Environment Canada hourly forecast. Chance of showers is “medium” (whatever that means!) during the time we’ll be at the Gardens. What do you think?

Tix are nonrefundable, right?

Yup.

I’d still go. I have an umbrella.

Me too. If I have to stay in the house one more day, I’ll scream!

So, meet in the parking lot at 11 am with rubber boots, and rain jackets and bellies.

Er…brollies. Stupid autocorrect.

When my friend Judy and I arrived at the Devonian Botanic Gardens, a University of Alberta-owned site about 15 minutes southwest of Edmonton, we knew we were in for a COVID-altered experience. Like so many other tourist attractions, the Gardens had many new protocols in place. Entry by timed reservation only. All food kiosks closed. Picnics prohibited. Benches roped off with yellow tape. Signs telling us to social distance from other patrons.

This last reminder wasn’t really a concern the day we were there, because the gardeners easily outnumbered the visitors. It also gave us the grounds almost to ourselves.

A quiet wander in a natural setting might be one of the most peaceful things we can do for ourselves in this summer of uncertainty. Flowers keep blooming, birds sit on nests, creeks flow, oblivious to the virus which has changed almost every part of our existence. Somehow, there’s a hopefulness in seeing this continuity in nature, a sense that one day, we’ll get that flow back in our own lives.

And so as the clouds leaked intermittently onto our umbrellas, we ambled, pouring our tears in each other’s ears, speculating what the world holds next for us, trying to make sense of the losses we’re experiencing. The backdrop of flower drifts, Japanese water features, and Canada geese herding their little ones along an almost deserted path replenished me, and offered reassurance that other, less challenging summers are still to come.

After an afternoon spent wandering the shops of Positano, a quaint little cliffside village on the Amalfi Coast, I’m sitting at a cafe table, sipping red wine, the day’s ambient heat radiating up from the cobblestones. The sun is just beginning to set, tingeing the turquoise Mediterranean candy floss pink.

Ya, right. My mom always told me I had a great imagination.

Well, the research it took to write that paragraph was fun, anyway. And maybe someday, I’ll visit the Amalfi Coast in person.

But not this year, and maybe not the year after that either. This “lost summer,”as one journalist I recently read calls it, will see me spending my time close to home. That wouldn’t usually be so bad because my hometown of Edmonton has become famous worldwide for its summer festivals. Traditionally, they start in mid-June and follow one after the other to the September long weekend, like so many excited kids lined up for a turn on the water slide.

Again, not this year.

Dreams of the Amalfi Coast aside, I realized a number of weeks ago that it was becoming urgent to unleash my imagination on this summer of no travel.  I dread the thought of heading into another long prairie winter without July and August memories. So, with the help of some of my equally inventive, restless friends, we began to concoct plans for tiny treks and travels, touring parts of Edmonton and a few nearby spots where we’d never or rarely visited.

Watch this space to eavesdrop on our travels. Tell me in the comment section how you’re turning your own lost summer into one to remember.

As a colleague of mine who researches hope told me, “It’s not that we can’t have adventures this summer. They just have to be little adventures.”

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In more ways than one, it’s been the summer that never was.

In Edmonton, we’ve had very few days when we could enjoy eating on outdoor patios, lounging outside with a good book, or heading out to a favorite lake for a weekend camping trip. When it wasn’t wet, cold, and windy, brooding clouds hid the blue, blue Alberta skies, shortening our traditionally long summer evenings and forcing us to turn on our dining room lights to see our dinner plates.

My own summer had the added disappointment of a cancelled trip to the UK after my husband was injured in a cycling crash. While he convalesced, I tried to staycation, but ended up going back to work a week early to save my vacation time for something more exciting than watching the rain flood my flower pots.

So, today, when the skies stayed blue through the entire day, and the temperature reached a balmy 24C, I was determined to get home from work in time to enjoy an evening on my back deck. But I had to stay late at the office for a Skype call that never came and my bus took off without me in a huff of diesel just as I reached its back door. Muttering under my breath, I thought my precious summer evening on the deck had disappeared. But then, I looked across the street to the Fairmont Hotel Macdonald– and got an idea.

In one blink of a traffic light, I was climbing the Macdonald’s front stone steps and basking in the smile of its doorman. I was headed for some me- time and dinner on one of Edmonton’s most elegant patios.

I wasn’t the only one taking advantage of our one-in-a-row summer evening. Only a table for 5 was vacant, but the server told me to go ahead and take it, not batting an eye at my solo dining status. Classy. He then brought me their summer BBQ menu (all dishes concocted at an outdoor cooking station) and asked if I’d like a newspaper to read while my white wine spritzer was being prepared. Why, yes, of course.

I didn’t have to look long at the menu to know what I needed to eat on this precious summer night- a burger and sweet potato fries. The brioche bun, crispy onions and Gouda aioli added a touch of gourmet while preserving the good old BBQ burger taste.

After a pause to appreciate the panoramic view of the river valley and to read an article on an innovative guide service for vacationing introverts called Introvertravel (really- this is a thing), I was ready for dessert. My server suggested the Mac honey ice cream, the honey courtesy of the hotel’s own bees and topped with pieces of honeycomb.

When I’d finished my meal, I wandered the gardens at the back of the hotel. The evening perfume of petunias, the still-sunny rudbeckias and the lulling splash of a fountain provided the finishing touches to my impromptu mini-vacation.

Whenever I travel, I’m always delighted to find out that there’s a market scheduled for wherever I’m staying.

Small town markets are the best, like the one I ran across last Wednesday in Banff. Unlike so many of the highly commercialized and cookie cutter businesses along Banff Avenue, the Banff market captures its grassroots culture. Locals meet each other and greet visitors like old friends. The aroma of roasting peanuts mingles with the wails of a guitar from a nearby park. Vendors of gin, beer, and hand cream offer samples. A fortune teller and a concerned-looking woman hunch over a table of tarot cards. And suddenly, I want to buy every locally produced bunch of carrots, bar of soap, and knitted cap, whether I need them or not.

The Banff market is held every Wednesday, May to October, from 10 am to 6 pm, right beside Banff Central Park, 110 Bear Street, on the beautiful Bow River.

I realized with a shock this week that the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity has been part of my life for almost 45 years.

I was 17 when I first came here to a United Church Young People’s conference, although my boyfriend and I spent more time exploring each other than we did learning to be upright Christian teens.Years later, a friend invited me to visit her at the Centre during her music residency. She then made me wait two hours to go to dinner with her while she fought over the phone with her boyfriend in Montreal. I’ve downed many glasses of wine with educational colleagues at conferences here, heard funky spoken word poets perform, and been charmed by Christopher Plummer reading Shakespeare excerpts, accompanied by a string quartet.

So, when I had the chance during a recent conference to go on a behind the scenes tour of the Centre, I jumped at the opportunity to see and hear about its inner workings.

Turns out the Banff Centre has been open a whole lot longer than 45 years. As an offshoot of the University of Alberta’s Department of Extension, it first opened a drama program in the town of Banff in 1933. By the mid-1940s, it had added other fine arts programs, and then moved to its present location above the Banff town site when one of its Directors talked the federal government out of 44 acres of national park land. The leadership program came next, and then the conference division. About 350 conferences are held here annually, with most of the revenue generated going directly back to fund the 3000 artists who come here from across Canada and around the globe with aspirations of stepping onto the world stage.

Our tour took us inside several of the shops that support drama and music productions at the Centre and other venues across Canada. The costume shop was one of my favorites.

We watched summer practicum students hard at work creating paper models of costumes for two operas that will be held at the Centre this summer. Unfortunately, I can’t share those pictures with you, because the Centre wants to keep them under wraps to preserve the element of audience surprise.

We then visited the Eric Harvie Theater, where crews were using the huge stage to assemble parts of the scaffolding for the operas’ outdoor amphitheatre. This too was part of the Centre’s educational mandate. The safety training the crews were receiving would help to ensure that some of the accidents that have occurred at other outdoor venues in Canada don’t happen here.

Our next stop was the carpentry shop, where crews build backdrops and large props. We carefully stepped around equipment we couldn’t identify and the wooden skeletons of who-knows-what laid out on the floor.

Smaller items for onstage use are manufactured in the prop shop. It was fun to speculate on what the prototypes might eventually look like and how they’d be used by the actors during a performance.

We finished up the tour with a visit to the Leighton Artists’ Studio, where musicians, writers, and other artists find space to create and practice, by themselves or collaboratively. It wasn’t hard to see how innovation could happen within the small cluster of cabins, surrounded by the solitude of the sun-dappled forest.

And if you needed a bit of whimsy to feed your creative muse, you could find that too, among the deer herd that grazed in the forest or inside the decommissioned fishing boat that now serves as a writer’s studio.

On the way back to our rooms, my educational colleagues and I remarked on how happy and engaged with their work everyone we’d met had seemed to be. In an era where politicians are slashing funding for the arts, I’m glad the Banff Centre is providing a small refuge for the type of creative practice that enriches our lives in so many ways.

BTW, if you want to stay at the Banff Centre but aren’t an artist or a conference participant, give them a call anyway. Although their primary mandate is educational, if they have space, they’ll be happy to provide you with room and board, often for less than you’ll find it elsewhere in Banff, and for sure in more inspiring surroundings.

In all the years I’ve been visiting Banff, how could I have missed touring one of Canada’s most important historic sites, the Banff Cave and Basin? But I had, so on an afternoon break from a conference at the Banff Centre, I headed off to go exploring.

From downtown Banff, the Cave and Basin site is only a 15-20 minute walk along a pleasant forest path that parallels the road. Along the way, you might catch sight of a few woodland inhabitants and fellow visitors enjoying their days.

If you were really ambitious and well-prepared, you could go a long, long way on this path. The trail is part of the National Hiking System, a cross- Canada network that provides links between national parks.

But, today, I leave the path, pay my $3.90 admission to Parks Canada, and begin my exploration of what’s known as the birthplace of Canada’s national park system.

Not surprisingly, the Stoney people, Banff’s original inhabitants, were well-acquainted with the hot springs located at this site. They held spiritual ceremonies here and bathed in the waters, which they believed to be sacred.

In 1883, during the building of the Canadian Pacific railway, three European railway workers “discovered” the hot springs, smelled financial opportunity, and petitioned the Canadian government for rights to develop the land. A hot springs reserve was granted and Canada’s national park system was established. The Stoney people, who had not been consulted about the development of their land, were pushed aside as wealthy spa visitors from around the world poured into Banff. Thankfully, after the springs were eventually closed to public use, the Stoney people resumed accessing the springs for traditional ceremonies.

Although you can’t bathe in the hotsprings anymore, you can follow a dimly lit hallway off the Interpretive Centre, which opens out into the Cave. As you breathe in the aroma of minerals and listen to the splash of a small waterfall, it’s not hard to imagine what it might have been like to visit this place thousands of years ago.

When you’ve finished absorbing the Cave atmosphere, head outside to the Basin for another perspective on this site. Even if you’re not an artist, you might be tempted to invest in a box of paints to capture the rich blues and greens.

This is an eyes only experience. Visitors are asked not to dabble their hands in the water for fear of disturbing the environment of the Rocky Mountain snails, the most at-risk species in Banff National Park. The Park rangers will happily point out these minuscule water dwellers which cling to the rocks along the water’s edge.

On the way back out, you can have a look at historical documents and photos that recall the days when the Cave and Basin were open for public swimming. But I’m happy that, after the site was rehabilitated to address various health and safety issues, the decision was made to keep the site a “look but don’t touch” experience. As Canada’s natural places and their inhabitants dwindle, they need the protection offered by this kind of foresight.

During the day, the Wakayama University professors and I sat in a classroom on their campus, discussing the pros and cons of replacing their lectures with active learning experiences. To thank me, they invited me to dinner that night, replacing the Western food I’d so far been eating at restaurants around my hotel with authentic Japanese dishes.

We ended up at a little hole-in-the-wall place where pairs of businessmen were hunkered down for the evening deep in conversation, black suit jackets off, white shirts gleaming, ties still properly in place. We slipped off our shoes and took a giant step up to our tables, settling onto cushioned seats for our meal.

The profs asked if there was anything I couldn’t or wouldn’t eat. After assuring them that I am an omnivorous and adventuresome eater, the food began to arrive, tapas-style, in chunky pottery dishes, little tastes of the regional cuisine for us to share.

First on the table was a serving of egg, fish, and Japanese purple sweet potato, all of them porous enough to absorb the delicate broth at the bottom of the dish. The longer they sat, the tastier they got.

Wakayama is located on the Pacific Ocean, so fish and seafood played a major role in this meal. We sampled pike, clams, salmon roe, red snapper, sashimi and squid.

Grilled squid

Salmon roe

Red snapper

Steamed clams

Sashimi

Our early dinner Asahi beers had long since disappeared so someone decided we needed some sake. Its smooth heat warmed my throat and I asked for a refill. “Easy to get drunk on sake,” one of the profs pointed out, so I turned my attention back to eating.

Egg cake and pike

Baked eggplant

There was one dish whose contents was a mystery even to the professors when it arrived – we could only guess at what the floured and fried shapes might contain.There was nothing else to do except take a bite and find out.

One by one, we played the identification game, finding chicken, mushroom, and fish. The woman sitting next to me took a bite of her surprise package, her puźzled expression quickly turning to disgust. ” Yuck!” she said, spitting out a pink glob into a napkin. “It’s Spam!”

At first, I thought I must have misunderstood. Spam, in a Japanese restaurant? Yes, one of the profs explained. It was introduced to Japan by the Americans after the end of WW II, and many people still eat it.

Two hours after the first dish arrived, we were absolutely stuffed, and it was time to call it a night. Which food was my favorite? someone asked. I couldn’t decide. But what I did know was that every dish had given us a reason to talk, laugh, and share a story, ending the evening a little closer to each other than when we’d arrived.