My Canada: A country retreat

As Canada prepares to celebrate its 150th birthday on July 1, I’m taking a look back at my 44-odd years in the country. This is the sixth of seven parts.

“We can go anywhere,” I said to the kids, looking at the map of North America on the dining room table, hoping to make it sound like a great adventure.

It was 1995. Daughter Jodie was twelve, Lacey nine.

We’d been living in the same house in Clarkson for a dozen years. I’d been at Canadian Press all that time, and a buyout was in the works.

For weeks, Linda and I had looked at that map and eliminated places we didn’t want to live. We knew we wanted a house in the country, with a view of water – an ocean, a lake – or mountains. Or both.

We decided to stay in Canada, hoping any culture shock would not be as jarring for the kids. We crossed out all of Atlantic Canada because it reminded of us Maine, where people were less welcoming of outsiders.

Quebec was also out. Language. So was southern Ontario, since we wanted a change from the flatland that had long been our home. The Prairies were never considered for the same reason.

British Columbia was eliminated because it was just too groovy.

In the end, we focused on Canmore, Alberta, and Thunder Bay, Ontario.

Canmore was a fast-growing community on the eastern edge of the Rockies. But, though we truly loved those mountains, it was just far from family.

So, the winner was Thunder Bay. It seemed to be a big enough city – with more than 100,000 people – to provide the creature comforts we required.

Linda flew to Thunder Bay and found us a fabulous house in the country, on a bay of Lake Superior, just outside the city. We arrived in late September.

The house was even more spectacular than Linda had described it. The pictures she’d taken had not shown much of the interior, the great open space that included the living room, dining room and kitchen, all windows facing the lake, tree-covered islands and the Sleeping Giant peninsula.

The kids seemed happy, taking the bus from the top of our driveway to the rural schoolhouse that included kindergarten through eighth grade.

Jasper, our second black standard poodle – Yaz lived to thirteen – especially loved our new home, since he was set free whenever he asked to go out, and could wander in the woods or saunter down to the lake for a drink.

Remarkably, he avoided confrontations with the foxes, wolves and moose that out-numbered the people in our neighborhood, though he did alert us one night to a huge black bear consuming a tub full of sunflower seeds I’d left on the deck, near the birdfeeder. Another time, he treed a small bear for entertainment.

treedbear2

I welcomed any diversion from the chore of working on a novel, taking long walks in the woods with Jasper, driving through Sleeping Giant Provincial Park to photograph wildlife, spending many hours splitting wood to heat our home. Very macho. Very Canadian.

Winter arrived on Halloween and lasted until June, when the ice on the lake broke up in a storm one night, throwing huge chunks onto our shore.

Ice on shore

By the next spring, I was taking freelance writing assignments. The most memorable was a magazine piece on an outfit called Blue Loon Adventures, run by a trio of Canadian biologists.

Starting at 5:30 a.m., I spent a morning in the bush with one of them, John Woodcock – yes, that was his real name – capturing and tagging a smorgasbord of birds: warblers, thrushes, flycatchers, vireos, grosbeaks, flickers, and many more of the hundreds of species that migrate to northwestern Ontario.

While the birds fed on bugs, the bugs fed on us. “That’s part of roughing it,” John said with a chuckle. The kid from the Bronx was not amused.

Despite growing to love the wilderness over my many years in Canada, I do not consider discomfort a requirement of being one with nature. Biting bugs – no thanks. Bitter cold – ditto.

My ideal wilderness adventures may begin with a hike up a mountain in the Rockies or along a trail through the rainforest on the west coast of Vancouver Island, but they end with a sumptuous dinner in a fine restaurant and a good night’s sleep in a king-sized bed at the Jasper Park Lodge or a five-star Tofino resort.

I want to view bears and moose and elk, not smell like them. And we had that luxury in our house on Lake Superior.

Still, over time, the isolation of the place overrode the scenic beauty. Living in a two-channel universe was no longer a novelty.

Our first winter, we were snowed in for days. One spring, when a beaver dam burst and washed out the Trans-Canada Highway, we were cut off from Thunder Bay – in fact, cross-country traffic had to turn back to Michigan or Minnesota on a detour of hundreds of miles to get around Superior on the U.S. side.

At 12:01 a.m. on my fiftieth birthday – November 19, 1996 – alone in the living room of my rural retreat, I knew it was time go.

By the time Linda and the kids were on the same page, it was the early summer of 1998 and I had taken my first job in television news, with the consigliere of Canadian culture, the CBC.

Tomorrow: The expat experience, Part II

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