Lake Athabasca

Its a two week countdown until I finish out my restaurant job in Guelph and have about ten days of downtime before my planting season officially begins, and for the first time in four years, I’m not heading north to Hearst to spend the summer in the Hearst Forest. An e-mail with contract details arrived in my inbox last week and I know I’ll be working in-between Lac la Biche and Lake Athabasca in Alberta. Lake Athabasca lies in the North Eastern corner of the province, nearing the border of the Northwest Territories. The contract will be a lot of oilsands and the burn around Fort Mac, as far as I can gather. The winter’s been a scramble of updating my credentials- I go into a new season with a new company armed with first aid, propane handler’s and an up to date food handler’s certification, and recently learned I’ll also be flying to Thunder Bay for two days of supervisor training. Wait, what, flying for work for a treeplant camp cook job? This isn’t Hearst anymore, baby! So I find myself trying to pick out an outfit that says both “I can survive in the bush and keep everybody else alive for three months” and also “I’m totally sophisticated enough for my work to be flying me in to a training session and putting me up in a hotel for two nights”. It’s harder than you’d think.

The schedule crunch gets a little crazy toward the end of April. I finish work the 14th in Guelph, I fly in to Thunder Bay from April 23rd-25th, then home, then I get on a train on the 27th to Edmonton. Wanda lives! But I don’t have the time or the finances to make sure she’s roadworthy for a 4,000km trip before the start of the season and the train ticket costs less than gas, which makes it an appealing mini vacation. A three month season in the bush is a hell of a lot longer than a two month, where people start going bush crazy around the three week mark.

When I rolled into Hearst in May of 2016 for the first time, it was like coming home. Born and raised in Northern Ontario the vast expanse of Boreal forest and huge sky and idling trucks have a sense of familiarity and grew more familiar over the time I spend there, and this summer in Alberta I’ll be sorely missing La Companion and Johnson Lake and even L’Independent. That first season saved my life, all sad and broken from a bad breakup and leaving Toronto and my career trajectory of fine dining cooking and just generally being lost. I wanted to go and camp cook that first season, but I ended up planting. I wasn’t the best planter. Actually I wasn’t very good at all. I struggled to hit the benchmark of 2k and made barely any money that season, but being outdoors and away from cell service and wi-fi and living in a tent was never the problem. Some of the greatest moments of joy in my life have been in the bush in Hearst, barreling down a logging road with shovels and hardhats rattling around my feet or sitting on a bridge above some nameless north Ontario river while a young man plays the accordion in the pitch black.

The second season I wanted to go and plant again, but ended up cooking, and the rest is history. I never could have known five years ago that I’d be planning logistics for a heli-access camp where possibly nobody has ever set foot before. I am so absurdly lucky that I get paid to travel to these remote parts of Canada, that I get to work off the beaten track, pick and choose my contracts and more or less live on my own terms. Full time long term employment has never been for me. I get bored after about 6 months. I love camp, where I work 24/7 for a few months, make decent money and then have time off. Finally having the opportunity for year round contract work with a company that does other forestry work and contracts out chefs and catering to remote operations opens up a lot of doors for me, and means I won’t have to quit a job every spring to go back to the bush.

All summer I’ll be dreaming of swimming naked in beaver ponds on Waxatike with my best friends. The day we decided to swim across Goat River and hit the bank about a hundred yards downstream, carried by the current and laughing. I’ll be missing the shitty parts, filling hotdog bun bags full of leftover beers from the night’s party and charming the receptionist at the Howard Johnson to let us back in to the hotel. I’ll be missing the hospital waiting room and the grocery store and the bad poutine at John’s and five dollar margaritas at the pizza restaurant, and I’ll be missing the cardlock and sharing showers at the Husky with Fleetwood Mac blaring on a tinny phone speaker, I’ll be missing ‘my bus’ Bertha and irresponsibly large boxfires and in a weird way, even the stinky ‘too yellow’ mess tent. I am going to miss Hearst, in a nutshell. I am going to miss all of the amazing people who have become dear friends to me over the past seasons, and I am going to miss Jude who can not come with me this season.

Five year plan- cook at Everest Base Camp for an expedition.
This winter? Maybe work on a horse ranch in Patagonia.
And then Wanda and the wide world of Canada call to me- once I’ve installed a tiny little woodstove to combat the elements, of course.

Look forward to having more blog-worthy content over the next few months.

xoxo
Bex



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The Great Migrations of Animals

Winter begins to close in on the Okanagan and the seasonal claustrophobia is compounded by the high mountain passes that comprise every means of egress. I’ve recently driven the Coquihalla and the Pacific Rim with Wanda, coaxing her up the inclines so steep and so gradual that I start to wonder if the van is breaking down until I arrive at the summit, to careen wildly down the narrow, winding highway lanes with grades of up to eighteen percent. One day after driving the Coq back to Kelowna my brakes give out completely and I can't allow myself to think about if the catastrophic failure had occurred between Kamloops and Merritt. Snow tires become mandatory as of October first, and on October third, the weather changes and snow flies in Rogers Pass, leaving behind thirty centimeters of treacherous snow. The weather changes at the drop of a hat. I don’t like the idea of not being able to leave if I wanted to, knowing that I could be landlocked by mountains, work is less than thrilling and rental prices in Kelowna are nearly as bad as the GTA, let alone availability. Just as we left Northern Ontario in mid July, I spend a nearly sleepless night before departing in the morning. Fuck ‘em, I think. I owe nobody anything and leave without goodbyes.

What is there to say about driving solo across three quarters of the country, one of the largest on Earth, other than it is long and tiring and contemplative. The days bleed into one another and every truck stop is a welcome respite. Coffee snobbery is shelved in favor of whatever caffeinated beverages are readily available and I dub the Husky House, especially those with showers and twenty four hour restaurants and a dark corner to park between silent eighteen wheeler behemoths the sacred alter of tired drivers everywhere. Since Hearst and a wise Francophone waitress (or maybe that was just the acid) the Formica tabletops and showers, available in exchange for rewards points redeemed from gasoline purchases, have been a bastion of comfort and civilization and comfort.

Kelowna BC-Brooks AB

Jude co-pilots through the Rockies, settling in to the passenger seat with resigned stoicism. This is a brisk drive without the leisurely enjoyment of touring around Vancouver Island and stopping at everything that piqued my interest. I almost leave immediately once I decide but refrain in a rare exhibit of pragmatism and organize and pack and prepare, charging batteries and checking oil and tire pressure and sleeping, a bit. Before departing the Okanagan, I check the BC highway webcams to make sure the roads are clear. The grade combined with snow and the size of the van could be catastrophic. Wanda sails to Golden no problem where we fuel up one last time before hitting the mountain passes. Check the oil, check the fluids, suspiciously eye the tires, and carry on. The sun breaks through the clouds as we start the ascent, but I’m hesitant to take it as a good omen. Taking the good means taking the bad, too, means the menacing clouds on the horizon or a black cat could become foreboding.

Rogers Pass, after the Coq and Pacific Rim, is a breeze. We make a brief stop in Banff for gas and to let Jude go for a run at the off leash dog park and to take in the mountains for the last time for awhile. It’s smooth sailing to Calgary, except for construction through the pass and the evidence of the snow a few days ago- there are still several vehicles in the ditch all the way into the city center. I miss the turn off for the bypass and we’re stuck driving through a downtown Calgary rush hour. A few years ago before setting out on a short roadtrip from Toronto to Manitoulin, having borrowed my ex’s parents car, I had such bad anxiety I didn’t sleep all night, dreaming about merging onto the DVP and 401 catastrophes. Funny, in retrospect, given I’ve now driven across the country four times and all over B.C, Northern Ontario and Quebec, as well as back into and all around Toronto and the GTA. Winter has descended swiftly and mercilessly upon the prairies on the east side of the Rockies and we settle for the night in Brooks, Alberta, completing the last leg from Calgary in herky-jerky little steps, stopping in Chestermere for dog walks and hot coffee and to kick at the foot of snow on the ground distastefully.

Driving while exhausted is one of the worst feelings in the human condition. The road rolls out for miles and miles and miles before you, kilometer markings taunting with their impossible slow passage. Its a weirdly dreamlike feeling, and one of acute danger- “Do not sleep,” your brain commands. “Do not sleep or we die.” But even that isn’t enough to stave off the involuntary eyeblinks and head nods that presage the necessity of finding a place to park for the night. The great thing about having the van is simply having to park, and having the bed, the kitchen and all the amenities right there in the back. It’s been home for months and it’s comfortable. Parking can be iffy, but residential streets are usually a good bet, as are the vast majority of Walmart parking lots and Husky lots. We sleep a few hours on a side street in Brooks before waking up to frost on the inside of the van from our breaths. As I’m chipping away at the layer of ice on the inside of the windshield, I hit the rearview mirror and the ancient and frozen glue crumbles and it topples, to rest sadly on the floor beside the passenger seat. No Canadian Tire is open (it’s ten to four in the morning) and I’m not fucking waiting. I can see with the side mirrors and the rear door windows so we carry the fuck on.

Brooks AB-Austin MB

Early in the morning in the still darkness of Medicine Hat, deer roam the streets, comfortably ambling the median of the Trans Canada and foraging for grass. They’re on the lawn of the Tim Hortons I descend upon, ravenous, and they’re looming in the residential areas with all the stealth of suicide commandos who may or may not choose to destroy my van. I feel significantly better about my odds in a van vs. deer collision than I do in a BeBe vs. deer collision.

This day of driving, to be honest, is a complete blur and my recollection of it is grossly inaccurate. Somewhere outside of Brooks, the Rockies out of view behind us and the real stretch of Prairies beginning, we descend into a bank of dense fog that billows on and on for hundreds of kilometers. It’s a long and staggering day in which we stop and start for naps all over the place. There’s another stop after Medicine Hat when I realize I’ve cheated myself of enough sleep, and we’ve gone as far as we can for now. I park between rows of trucks at a truck stop in, I believe, Indian Head, although there were two similar stops that day and I couldn’t say for sure where the other one was. In the early morning light, we continue. We stagger all the way across Saskatchewan, stopping at any roadside distractions and points of interest. Some people have never done this in their lives- this is my fourth drive across the country. At Reed Lake in Saskatchewan I scream with joy, pointing at the lake and frantically looking for a place to pull over. Thousands upon thousands of birds of all types are upon the lake, honking and squawking and flapping. We’ve gotten here at just the right time of year to witness the great migration of animals from all across the north to their winter homes in the south. Jude runs across the Prairie, free and unencumbered for the first time in days and I could weep. It’s a Farley Mowat moment in a few different ways, the prairie slough, the animals, my mutt dog.

We stagger along in this fashion until Austin, Manitoba, just short of my trajectory of Winnipeg. A night beside a grain silo in the comfortable darkness and silence.

Austin, MB- Thunder Bay ON/Thunder Bay ON-Manitoulin Island ON

Winnipeg is a comfort to reach the next day. A hot Husky shower and breakfast almost makes me believe there is a god. I feel nearly human, though surreal, travelling the vast distances between myself and my family and my home, wondering the entire time about the meaning of the word and what I want out of my life. I love this vast and aimless wandering and the pure joy of the freedom of the highway. I can be wrapped up in all sorts of dilemmas and sadness and confusion and as soon as I start driving, it goes away. Its an absurd sort of joy and one I can’t quite seem to find any other way. Jude’s a wonderful co-pilot and passenger but I can’t help but think how amazing it would be to have somebody in the passenger seat to bear witness to some of the utterly mad and wonderful things you see when you’re on the road. Weird and wonderous and beautiful. My friends are dotted across the country and throughout my travels they’ve been there again and again at all different stops. The flocks of migrating birds and roadside coyotes pouncing on mice in the cut grain fields, roadside oddities and giant papier mache geese and animals, lakes and mountains and rivers and the sad, almost bleak and intimidating expanse of the land- you don’t know until you’ve seen it.

Getting to Ontario is not the end of the journey. In fact, it is the start of the worst part. Kenora to Sault Sainte Marie is the worst part of the drive. The highway goes down to two lanes, narrow and twisting after the fourlane stretch of fast driving through all three prairie provinces. It seems to become further between towns, a theory I inadvertently test when I fail to buy a coffee before leaving Thunder Bay. “Next town,” I think, but there, an eighteen wheeler cuts me off and I can’t find a good place to turn around so we carry on. “Wawa,” I’m hopeful. I pull of the Trans Canada in Wawa hours later to go to Tims and enjoy, finally, a hot tea and maybe some sort of awful prefabricated snack. Their debit machine is down so I leave to go and find cash. I lost one of my debit cards somewhere between Winnipeg and here, I’m suspecting in Amaranth when I pulled down my pants to pee in the parking lot of an abandoned gas station, so I’m trying to e-transfer myself money to my other account so I can take out cash to buy a god damn coffee and the e-transfer is refusing to go through and I am on the verge of meltdown because the Soo is still hours away. “You god damn whore,” I swear in ways I haven’t sworn since a harried service in a tiny kitchen with the missing tip of an index finger. We peel out of Wawa, and my bad mood and surly tempter tantrum continue until we get into the stunning fall colors all along the shores of Superior and the Agawa Canyon.

Much like the migrating birds, this is one of those things where the timing was just right. Every tree from Tamarack to Poplar is bright with autumn color and the weather is clear and fresh. Four hours of driving in absolute unbroken beauty. This is around where I get into the landmarks of home and become sentimental, passing turnoffs to White River and Manitouwadge and knowing that there is no return to Northern Ontario imminent the upcoming spring. Not so far from here somebody once played the accordion in the darkness of a North Ontario night to a small crowd invisible in the pure inky blackness of the bridge over the Pic River. These are the names of home I know, on my map of Algoma Manitoulin. The familiar names are an incantation, they hold power, they’re attached to memories deep in my psyche and soul. Pancake Bay elicits a cheerful smile, remembering a summer weekend spent there with the Italians and the frigid, clear waters of Superior. In the Soo I stop to visit a family friend. I’ve missed Thanksgiving dinner, now, a few hours away on Manitoulin. It’s less than five hours to my final destination there, but it’s three in the afternoon and my memory is garbled and my logic is skewed and I’m riding an emotional rollercoaster centered around the availability of coffee and the distance between gas stations. The last leg from the Soo to Espanola, and then, to Manitoulin, is familiar and easy. The Espanola Hills, once daunting, now seem tame in comparison to the highways of the mountains of B.C. I run into family at the Tim’s in Espo, which only seems right, and Manitoulin is a welcome respite from four days on the road- a journey completed solo in the same amount of time it took three or four of us to do the drive cross country earlier in the year. And we sleep and wait for the next adventure, anxiety building and cabin fever mounting as winter draws in.



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Prairie Copilot

Jude, Saskatchewan, 2018

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Carter Bay

Manitoulin Island 2018

The Van Plan

I spent the past few days loafing around Victoria, no plan, just seeing the city and being back in the relative comfort of civilization for a few days. And being overwhelmed by it. It's hard to find a place to park the van for the entire day, so a lot of the day is just moving the van from one parking spot to another, especially since it is so long that it is more difficult to park, although for some reason, I can parallel park it and back it into a parking spot fairly easily. Sleeping in the van in nice neighborhoods like Fernwood feels furtive and uncomfortable and my ocean side pad had specific "No overnight parking or sleeping" signs plastered everywhere. It's hard to find a good place to set up and pull out the camp stove and boil water for coffee or heat up my food, and the foot traffic outside the van and the flood lights and the constant lowkey worry of a knock on the window and a 'Move along," don't allow for a wonderful sleep. The carburetor is temperamental a and starting the van for the first time in the morning is an adventure, especially if you're in busy downtown Victoria and have to stop almost immediately at an intersection where you stall out in front of a line of right turning traffic and frantically have to pull the choke out and feather the gas pedal with your foot while saying "There, there!" to either yourself, or the van. I scavved a shower at Crystal Pool and had a swim at the same time, as there's no Husky with showers available anywhere nearby.

I went out for beers with a dear friend from first year of treeplant at the Fernwood Inn. God bless those of us living our lives on our own terms. She's off to India next month for an indeterminate period of time, and if I didn't have the dog, I probably wouldn't be living the van life and would likely be bopping around somewhere abroad as well. These friendships are such a wonderful thing. They fill me with awe and the kind of joy that's so sharp it verges on sorrow. My treeplant family and I have shared some of the most intense, crazy experiences together, I'm closer to many of them than friends I've known for years, and the way we disperse and come back together in the most random corners of the world is exciting and sad all at once. I've been inspired by those who have traveled and lived in caravans and who taught me to sleep on the grass soccer fields in the dead quiet nights of summer, those with gold teeth that glitter in the Pacific sunshine and the vagabonds I love and miss who point me toward island beaches and hippie havens and the elusive dream of a place where we'll be happy and full until the next season of planting begins.

I have no intentions of this turning into a 'van life' blog, but it's all still so new and there's so much happening that its at the forefront of my thoughts these days for sure. I'm writing this from a rest stop outside of Nanaimo where I slept my first night in the van, my laptop is fully charged from my morning at the Greater Victoria Public Library, where I was publicly shamed for trying to take a photo of a Monty Python quote on the balustrade, and my phone is plugged into the laptop to charge. I spent the day bopping around Habitat for Humanity Restores, thrift stores downtown, Canadian Tire and Home Depot, gathering supplies. There's a lot of work to be done on the van and it can be difficult to prioritize where to start. It's easy to freeze. I'd like a mattress, I'd like to decorate, I'd like storage solutions and power and I must insulate for the winter and get body work done and get a leaky antifreeze line looked at, as well as a fanbelt replaced and the carburetor checked out. Today, I scored some storage solutions and started the list of prioritizing, biting the bullet and buying everything I need to get 'er insulated. I'll likely need to borrow some tools from either a tool library or a nice neighbor but I'm on my way to Poole's Land, an anarchist hippy commune outside of Tofino, and I think I'll find it a good place to work. I left Vic for the time being out of a combination of being overwhelmed by the city and the need to have space to work on the van. When you're drifting about the city streets and various parking lots, it is nearly impossible to find a workspace to cut templates and glue and paint and scrape and spray foam and remove all the van fixtures to lay down new laminate flooring. So the plan for the immediate future is to hit Tofino and get the insulating done. 

As a few small comforts, I got clean sheets, pillow cases and material to make curtains today from the VV Boutique. My lantern is equipped with fresh batteries and I treated myself, with my dwindling cash supply, to a string of unicorn lights from Dollarama. I'd like to get a new camp stove, a two burner guy, to be able to make more intensive meals, so that's added to the wishlist along with an entire solar system to power a mini-fridge and to be able to charge laptop, phone, etc, as well as maybe a fan/electric heater as necessary, or a nice lamp. As a short term measure to be able to keep my phone charged without having to spend multiple hours at libraries and Tim Hortons (which frustratingly, sometimes don't have outlets, an unpleasant surprise as I stand there poking around with the tea I didn't really want), I replaced a bunch of old fuses in the van, but it seems to be a bigger problem to fix. The BCM may be blown and a relatively expensive fix at this point in the game, with a quick online estimate of $350 for the part and the labor. I'm unsure if it makes more sense to sink the money into that fix or to start building an auxiliary power system that can eventually be hooked up to the solar when I can afford to install that. For the time being, it's Tim's and libraries, and surviving without data, Spotify and aimless Instagram browsing. Probably for the best for my productivity...

My goals for the winter include learning the tin flute, fucking finally, working on my conversational French and assembling a collection of poetry for publication, as well as completing the rough draft of The Treeplant Cookbook. 

Jude will be here with me in seventeen days, requiring a trip back to the Okanagan to snag the cranky old dog man, so I'm hoping to hustle through the basics of the van renos and start scoping out the work situation for the next few months.

Now, to enjoy the first television I've watched since April! An episode of RuPaul's Drag Race on the spotty Wi-Fi coming from an undetermined point near the rest stop, and a night's sleep under the bright lights with the soothing roar of steady traffic on the Trans Canada as a lullaby. I'm hoping to get up (and get the van started) early enough tomorrow to head to Pipers Lagoon, a large oceanfront park in Nanaimo, for the end of low tide and the sunrise. Swimming in the ocean may not be for me- too many sea creatures- but looking at the jellyfish like discarded condoms and the starfish and the scuttling crabs and bickering seagulls gives me great joy.

With love from some cozy afghans and floral print pillowcases that are making the van feel like home,
Xoxo Bex

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Mill bay views

vancouver island 2018