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Saturday, 1 January 2011

Burringham to Boston-My 2003 World Trip-Part 7-Canada (Swan Hills)

Swan Hills
        Most of my life I've loved things Americana, especially old films. Now here I am boarding a Greyhound like they did in all those old films, and I'm reminded of a line from a Chuck Berry song 'Promised Land' which goes ‘Straddled that Greyhound, rode him into Raleigh and on across Caroline’. This is the Promised Land; all my childhood dreams seem to becoming true on this trip.
          The journey from Calgary to Edmonton was uneventful but very comfortable.
A ten minute break at Red Deer and passing through Gasoline Alley were among the highlights. One thing noticeable since I came to Canada is space, this is a big wide open country.
         I mentioned at the beginning of my account that Peggy was one of fourteen children. With the exception of a few days back in Calgary the rest of my trip is with the McGovern clan. I consider the 'Eddie Charlie’s', my adopted family and feel as close to them as my own family.
         I'm met at Edmonton Greyhound depot by Betty McGovern (nee Gunderson).
Me and Betty
       Betty is a native Canadian of Scandinavian descent and married to Tommy, one of Peggy’s brothers. We’d met at the big reunions in Ireland in 1993 and 1998, and she doesn't look a day older after five years.
        We set off in her beautiful Cadillac and head for Swan hills. A slight detour takes us to West Edmonton mall (The biggest mall in the world), where I get cassettes for my video camera. We travel up highway 33 stopping at Barrhead to use a cash machine. Up to now the landscape has been pretty flat and mainly farming, including buffalo. Reaching Fort Assiniboine and the mighty Assiniboine River the landscape begins to change. Native spruce becomes the norm and we begin to gain height, we’re two hours north of Edmonton now .Swan Hills is situated at the highest point in Canada east of the Rocky Mountains at an elevation of four thousand feet.

It's 63 kilometres from Fort Assiniboine to Swan hills, and for most of the way the highway is straight, undulating and as far as the eye can see. In Canada journeys are usually measured in time rather than distance.
Just coming into Swan Hills we pull up at TMS. This is Tommy's woodworking and antique shop.

Me and Tommy
                He's pleased to see me and greets me in his own inimitable way with a few colourful words.
        We get to Tommy and Betty's lovely house and I've got a room in the basement. I’ve also got a lovely neighbour in the next room who is introduced to me as Sonya, a friend who's moving to Edmonton. Tommy calls her a 'Temperamental Oriental'.
            Tommy and Betty have three grown up children, Thomas Ole (Bud), Tracy and Tanya; they weren't at the 98 reunion so its 10 years since I'd seen them.
Betty, Me, Tommy, Bud, Tanya, Teighn and Daryn
                  Tonight I meet Tanya, her husband Daryn and their enchanting daughter Teighn.
         Dinner at the Swan Hills Palace and watching the 98 reunion video sees the day out. Over the next two weeks I come to love this place and the community spirit of the people in it.
       Monday 11th August. Up late, Tommy and Sonya have gone to work, Betty shows me where all the breakfast stuff is in the kitchen. Betty does a lot of community work herself, and so I'll be on my own much of the time. This will give me lots of time to explore this 'Wilderness Playground'.
       Swan Hills has a population of 1800, but has community and recreational facilities for a town 10 times its size, which are all in evidence as I take a walk round.
      I’m heading for Tommy’s workshop and I call in at the Tourist centre on my way where I talk to Pat who’s manning the kiosk. She’s a very friendly lady and provides me with loads of brochures and some Swan Hill badges as mementoes.
      At the workshop and what becomes a daily routine for me, Tommy’s got the coffee percolating, and we talk about England, Ireland, Scotland and the rest of the world, regularly being interrupted by friends and customers alike.
        Lunch at the Palace brings my first encounter with Mayor Gary Pollock. Tommy and Gary have a friendly rivalry throwing insults at each other and working out whose turn it is to pay. Gary is of Scottish extraction so he sees me as an ally and he also plays golf, I can’t argue with that.
   I meet up with Bud later; we have a few beers and get re-acquainted. Bud and his wife Sue lives opposite Tommy and Betty, and he tells me to help myself to the use of his spare pick up truck. Sue was away on business during my stay in Swan Hills.
I need a bit of exercise now so I borrow Sonya’s bike, cycle down to Tanya’s one street away and borrow Daryn’s bike. It’s a lovely evening and a beautiful sunset.
Canadian Sunset
         Tuesday 12th August. Today I take my first of many trips out in Bud’s pickup truck. My first walk into the bush at the ‘Centre of Alberta’ and ‘Trapper Lea’s cabin and I’m a bit apprehensive, what do I do if I meet a bear. Luck was with me, in all my time in Swan Hills the closest I came to seeing a bear was almost stepping in fresh droppings. Exploring the wilderness playground becomes a labour of love.
  I head now for Chrystina (Windy)Lake and coming over the brow of a hill I see in the distance what I think may be a moose. As I stop by the side of the road getting my video camera ready, a couple of pickup trucks go flying past and the animal has gone. I get my first look at the waste recycling plant. It looks very clean.
        I talk to a camper before getting to the lake, he tells me there’s a Lynx close by and if I go quietly I’ll see it. I get to the lake and there are the two pickup trucks that passed me. It turns out the occupants are day-trippers from Edmonton with very noisy kids, so any wildlife has by now scampered.
The lake and surrounding scenery is beautiful though, and on a later visit a nesting Osprey is pointed out to me by Rob one of the local game wardens.
Windy Lake

Mealtimes at Centennial Crescent usually ended up with me overeating, I wondered whether Betty was fattening me up for the kill, but the food was always so irresistible. Tonight after dinner Bud and I head off in his pickup for a spot of ‘Boozin Cruisin’ and filming. Out into the oilfields and Bud gives me the low-down on Pump Jacks,gas and water separation and a  general idea of how it all works.
Pump Jack
It’s a beautiful evening and Edith lake looks like a picture postcard as I film a heron in flight reflected like a mirror in the still water.
Edith Lake
We see lots of beaver lodges, but they are very shy creatures. We don’t see any beavers but I get to film some majestic stags, bucks and does. Across the Swan river we reach a high point with views of hundreds of square miles of nature. One of the outstanding features is the evidence of the last forest fire in this region, where the stumps of the old burnt trees stand blackened against the sky with the new forest growing underneath. Heading back we stop and talk to a colleague of Bud’s, night is coming in and a thunderstorm in the distance is an amazing backdrop to the lights of Swan Hills far below us. I’ve really felt at one with nature today, what a big beautiful country.
             Wednesday 13th August. Borrowed Daryn’s bike this morning and cycled as far as the waste plant about 18 kilometres away. A long long climb going and I sweated buckets, but the views and seeing deer, buzzards and being dive bombed by a screeching Loon made it worth while. The mystery woman waving at me turns out to be my ‘roommate’ Sonya.
After a shower and lunch, I’m into the pickup and down to Tom’s to meet up with Mayor Gary Pollock and on to the golf course. We pair up with game wardens Ken and Rob, and have a great time. With the exception of Cushendall golf course in County Antrim this is the most challenging nine holes I’ve ever played. Gary’s a pretty mean golfer.
                     Bud and me are out to the rivers, lakes and creeks again tonight. We go to Penn West first. Apparently yesterday a Grizzly had been spotted trying to get hold of a moose swimming in the lake. No luck for us though, but it was brilliant to see a really big beaver swimming in the Swan river which I managed to get on the video camera. Lots of deer again tonight.
                 Thursday 14th August. A drive in the pickup to Fort Assiniboine. This is the second oldest fort in Alberta, the Hudson Bay Company established a trading post here in 1823.I visit the museum and learn a lot about its history and its strategic importance.
       The Athabasca river is big and powerful here, and I see an eagle carrying a snake but by the time I get my camera out I’ve missed it.
         Tonight I accompany Bud to Sonya’s farewell party. We have a great night and over indulge mixing drinks. Budweiser, Vodka and Lime and Rye and ginger is asking for trouble, and with Sonya encouraging me I carve ‘Uncle Jim and Sonya Chu’ into an already well scarred bar.
             Today there were big power failures in large parts of Canada and the USA.
                  Friday August 15th.AM, a trip out to the beautiful serenity of Krause lake, where I talked with Jim Wurm a colleague of Buds.
Krause Lake
  Friday August 15th PM, Daryn gave me a conducted tour round the waste plant, which I found to be reassuringly safe, being a survivor of a chemical disaster. The Flixborough explosion is standard material in most fireman’s training manuals, and Daryn being a voluntary fireman was interested in hearing my first hand account.
A beautiful evening and I  go for a long walk with Betty, Teighn and Tracy’s dog Sydney who’s being looked after by Betty and Tommy while Tracy and Jay are holidaying.
           Saturday August 16th, Eighteen holes of golf with Gary today. Tommy joined us in the clubhouse for lunch after the first nine. Tommy’s carpentry is in evidence all over the Swan Hills area and here it’s no different since Tommy made the furniture. I just love this golf course.
              Tommy’s real antique collection isn’t in the shop but in the garage at home, and I spend the late afternoon browsing .This is a real Alladins cave of memorabilia and antiques, ranging from complete collections of old books and comics, pocket watches, clocks, china, crockery to old typewriters, tools and old farm implements, some of which were used by Betty’s family early 20th century. Later looked at Tommy’s extensive coin collection.
                 Sunday 17th August. Down to Tommy’s AM. Tommy’s latest project is trying to get a Seniors Lodge built in Swan Hills, and he’s busy organising meeting with the various boards and authorities he’s got to deal with. The people at Barrhead might put the block on it.
     A trip out to Windy lake and I hear the haunting howl of a wolf and see a big trout jumping.
      Afternoon on the golf course with Bud and a few beers. We team up with Cal and Darcy a couple of youngish guys. They’re great players, Darcy especially. Bud tells me their good play wont last, he’s right and whenever whatever wears off they’re a couple of wrecks. Brilliant fun.
   Back home and Tracy and Jason have arrived. They’re staying at Bud’s for a couple of days, before heading off to their home at Rainbow lake, seven hours north of Swan Hills.
Jay and Tracy
Tracy’s as cheerful as I remember her. Jay’s a team leader with one of the big oil companies, Husky I think. He seems a great guy. We have a great evening, watching the reunion video, showing photos and drinking beer.
          Monday 18th August. I’m up and out early this morning to Penn West Reservoir and Edith Lake. It’s a beautiful sunny morning and the mist rising off the water, with only the sound of an occasional bird makes a picture of perfect tranquillity. It’s beautiful but I’d hoped to come across bears and moose this early.
  After coffee with Tommy I head out to Freeman Lake and the Freeman River.
Freeman Lake
Walking up the Freeman river ,I see fresh bear prints on the river shore and evidence of lots of beavers with whole 30ft trees being gnawed clean through, amazing creatures. The further in from the road I go the more vicious the mosquitoes get. I get to a swampy area and see a cow moose grazing on the edge of the trees, I manage to get a little bit of footage on my video camera. I think my inability to see even more wildlife than I did is that I never stayed in the one spot long enough.
       Decided to drive down to the town of Whitecourt, passing logging camps and oil installations. Joined the Alaska highway heading south east into town. Had I been travelling north west I’d have been heading for towns I’d read about as a boy, Grande Prairie, Dawson creek and Fort Nelson. Again I crossed the Athabasca River
Athabasca River
This is Alberta’s longest river over 700 miles long, rising in the glaciers in Jasper national park in the Rockies, it wends it way right across and up the province to discharge into Lake Athabasca. It would be brilliant to travel its length.
After a walk round Whitecourt, I had a beer and a sandwich in Shooters bar where I talked to a couple of real life cowhands complete with cowboy hats.
Back in Swan Hills, myself, Bud, Tracy and Jay were invited to tea at Tanyas. After the best roast beef I ever tasted, or so I thought, I was informed I’d just eaten Moose. Bring it on it was beautiful.
    Tuesday 19th August. Pretty routine today, but again found fresh bear droppings on one of the snowmobile trails on the edge of town.
Tracy, Jay myself and Bud are partying again tonight. This time were at their friends Tony and Terry’s. We’re drinking beer by the fire and the ‘Craic’ is brilliant. Tony is a natural wit. The food is brilliant, Terry cooks lots of traditional Canadian food and her Huckleberry pie just melts in the mouth. Another great night in this wonderfully friendly town.
     Wednesday 20th August. A trip out to Krause lake clears the cobwebs then lunch with Gary and Tommy at the Palace..
   On the way to the golf course I filmed a family of coyotes crossing the highway. I must get a zoom camera for my next trip, they’d have made fantastic still pictures.
         This evening Betty and Tanya have a beautiful tea prepared. Tanya, Daryn and Daryn’s mum Millicent are over for tea .Millicent’s a widow with a great sense of humour. She’s up from Edmonton for a few days.
Millie and me
Late evening sees us all on Daryn and Tanya’s deck with a big fire going watching the amazing spectacle of the Aurora Borealis or Northern lights, with Millie’s making quips about me finally filming a moose, albeit on Daryn’s deck.
Thursday 21st August. Today I accompany Tommy on a round trip in his pickup truck. He’s got a few calls to make. After about an hour of travelling past logging camps, fields of buffalo and sandy shortcuts we reach the Klondike Ferry. It’s on a wire pulley system and of course it’s over the Athabasca river.
Klondike Ferry
Now heading north east the terrain becomes flatter, there’s still some forestry but we’re well into farming country. Monster sized fields growing various grain crops, livestock including beef and buffalo and dusty roads that tell you somebody’s ten minutes ahead of you. We do get onto the main highway heading for Athabasca town and call at the farm belonging to Tommy’s friends Lesia and Dennis, we come back later to eat.
   Tommy concludes his business in Athabasca town, and then we’re on through even more farming country, spotting a couple of very large cranes in a field. All this area was settled early 1900 by Ukrainian and other eastern Europeans, and hundred year old Dutch barns and churches with names like St Demetreus are everywhere. Then we’re on to Lesia’s Uncle Bill’s place in the middle of nowhere, which is a foundry and farm with the beautiful name of ‘Wilderness Castings’. He’s got tractors sitting there that haven’t moved in 50 years.
      Back at Lesia and Dennis’s farm we’re treated to a meal of some of the best beef in Canada, Lesia and Dennis save their best beef for themselves and family and friends. Tommy provided a lot of their beautiful furniture, and there’s an intriguing desk which used to belong to a dentist, complete with newspaper cuttings about it’s history.
      Well fed we’re on the road back to Swan Hills, stopping at Westlock for fuel and a cl ean of the million bugs on the windscreen, and at Barrhead for Tommy to drop some correspondence off. Today we must have covered an area about the size of Northern Ireland. A brilliant day.
       Friday 22nd August. Today’s my last full day in Swan Hills. Out to Windy lake where Rob the game warden points out the Osprey nest and chicks. Then a visit to Edith lake and the Swan river.  Spent the afternoon talking to Tommy.
  Tonight we have a bit of a farewell party for me, and there are no superlatives to describe Betty and Tanya’s cooking. Everybody takes lots of pictures and Teighn’s made me a lovely card.
Saturday 23rd August. Up early and down to Tommy’s workshop for the bus to Edmonton. Tanya and Teighn have made a farewell placard. I’m really sad to be leaving here.
                                                               Goodbye Swan Hills.

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Morning deer

Morning deer
is someone watching me