You teach your children some fashion sense
And they fashion some of their own
- Gordon Downie

Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Mountains in My Life

Every time I have some moment on a seashore, or in the mountains, or sometimes in a quiet forest, I think this is why the environment has to be preserved.
Bill Bradley

One of the greatest legacies of my childhood is my life-long fascination with mountains. I love to look at them, drive through them, climb them and visit them every chance I get. It takes me ninety minutes to drive to the nearest mountain from my home in Red Deer and it seems like they beckon from the moment I see them. On very clear days, I can see the outline of the Rockies as I drive to school. As a boy, our summer vacations involved either camping or fishing. Often, we were fortunate enough camp and fish in the mountains.

Banff, Jasper, Kananaskis, Nordegg, the Crowsnest Pass, Wells Gray, Kokanee Glacier, Kootenay, Yoho, Mount Revelstoke, Mount Robson. The list of places I learned to love starts with these places and could go on and on. The more I think about it, the more I realize how lucky I was to spend my youth visiting and learning about our natural and cultural history. At first, we camped in Vanguard camper that perched on the back of dad's enormous Ford crew cab truck. The windshield of this truck bore multiple green and yellow National Parks annual pass stickers - the ones with the beaver on them. Yearly admission was something like $25 for Canadian residents and we often spent all of dad's holidays camping, fishing, and hiking.

As I grew older, we began to backpack. We would leave my mom and sister behind at the truck and spend a night or two in the backcountry. It was then that I really learned what it meant to be a part of the mountains. For brief moments as we trudged down I path, I would allow myself to see the land the way the first explorers like David Thompson and Mary Schaffer must have seen this land. Our guidebook for all of these trips was Patton and Robinson's Canadian Rockies Trails Guide. I read this book voraciously, repeatedly and constantly. I owe a great deal of my appreciation for the mountains to these trips. As an adult, my best friend would join dad and one of his friend for a extended backcountry trip. These trips were an amazing opportunity to learn, push myself and reconnect.

When I was twelve, dad and I took a canoe trip up Maligne Lake in Jasper. There are two campsites on this lake that can be accessed only from the water. We spent five nights at one of the sites, which is approximately half way up the lake and two bays away from one of the most photographed spots in the Canadian Rockies, Spirit Island (the photo at the top of my post). Boatloads of tourists walk on and photograph this island because there are hourly boat tours to this spot. It took us five hours to paddle to our campsite and another 20 minutes to paddle to Spirit Island. I can only laugh and think of how many Japanese, British and German photo albums or slide carousels we must be in. Every time the tour boat would pass us, modern day voyageurs in a green Coleman canoe, the clicks and flashes would begin. The day we paddled to Spirit Island, we beached the canoe and took some photos. Just as we were about to have our snack, the tour boat pulled up. One British lady asked us if we were hired by the Parks to pose for pictures on the island. After three days of 30 degree weather and no shower, I imagine she thought we might be street folk who needed a few pennies.

As I have grown up, my time in the mountains has extended and changed. I still camp, hike and backpack. My wife introduced me to skiing, which gives me another excuse to visit the mountains every chance I get. Ski trips have added a new dimension to the mountain experience - visiting these fantastic places in the winter! Seeing the mountains blanketed in white is truly amazing and I cannot think of a better way to spend a winter day. Being outside, smelling the pines, riding a chairlift and racing down these hills is completely invigorating. Skiing is a nearly perfect family activity. It is expensive, but how can you put a price on spending an entire day visiting, exercising, and spending time with your spouse, children and friends?

I am writing this post from a hotel on Tunnel Mountain in Banff. When we checked in to our hotel, my wife said exactly what I was thinking for the last 15 minutes of our drive. Somehow, it feels different when you are in the mountains. It's better. You are closer to nature. I come to the mountains to be outdoors. I come here to spend time with the people I care about the most. I come here to exercise and challenge myself whether I'm camping, hiking, backpacking, climbing, canoeing, rafting, fishing, skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, tubing, or sledding. The Rockies really are special. They deserve to be protected and appreciated. For years, I really wanted to live a mountain community, and a small part of me still wants to. The more I think about it, though, I'm not sure if they would hold the same sense of wonder and delight if I got to experience them every day. I would never want to take a beautiful place for granted.

I can only hope that my children grow up feeling the same way I do. It could well be one of the greatest gifts I give my children. If we all felt as passionate about our wild places as I do, we wouldn't need laws and parks to protect them.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Game I Love

Playoff beards. Dropping the flippers. Right skate first. Warm up tunes. Post game snacks and rehydration. Chirping the other team's goalie. Superstitions. Early morning practices. Freezing in the stands or on the bench. Riding the pine. Arena burgers. Going end to end. Road trips!!!

If you have played, watched or coached hockey, I'm sure you know what I mean. How does it get better than hockey? I can really remember the last 35 years of my life. I've been involved with hockey for each of those years. I've been concussed, elated, suspended, protected, selected, responsible, irresponsible. I've been a leader, a prospect, washed up, a coach, a teacher, a parent and a diehard fan. I've spilled buckets of blood and tankers of sweat. Hockey paid for my university education, but it still cost my parents thousands of dollars. It is full of paradoxes but it is oh, so perfect in so many ways.

With the possible exception of my family and fishing, nothing gets me more excited than hockey. The speed, the violence and the skill of the game set it apart from every other sport. Skating is not natural for the vast majority of people in the world. Anyone can throw, hit, or kick a ball. Very few can execute a pivot from forwards to backwards, throw a head fake and crank a tight turn on skates. Even fewer can pull off a toe drag at top speed, freeze the d-man and snap it over the goalie's shoulder. Fewer still can stack the pads, flash leather for a glove save and stretch a butterfly while doing the splits. Hockey is special. It is Canada's little secret that only a few people around the world really understand. Hockey is to sport what The Tragically Hip is to music.

I spent the past weekend watching the western Canadian Junior B hockey championship tournament, the Keystone Cup. The host team, the Sherwood Park Knights, is a team I captained and coached. I have many great memories associated with hockey and so many of them involve the Knights. As a good friend of mine pointed out, the young men who play for the Knights have no illusions. They understand what every kid who dreams of playing in the NHL eventually understands. Very few are selected and even fewer make a living in this game. When you play Junior B, you stop playing for yourself and your parents and really start playing for the guys beside you in the dressing room. You play to be around the game and hang out with the team. If you work hard enough, you get a chance to win your league, play in provincials or, if you are really fortunate, play for an even bigger prize like the Keystone Cup.

On Saturday, I volunteered and worked security for the tournament, which meant that I spent my entire day in the Sherwood Park Arena. I watched 5 games between 6 different teams. What struck me was that, no matter where the team was from, the differences were minimal. The language, the energy, the intensity, the look, even the smell of each team was incredibly similar. The players, coaches, fans and volunteers for each team were passionate about hockey. They grew up playing the game and they all knew that this tournament was, for the majority of the players, their last chance to win something big.

My nephew played for the host team like his dad and his uncle. The Knights proved they belonged in the tournament and made it to the gold medal game. The arena was packed and the energy was unbelievable. The host team scored the first goal, but was not able to hold on to the lead. They hit posts, crossbars, and had many chances to even the score. When the buzzer sounded to end the game, the cheers of the winning team were drowned out by the sound of hearts breaking throughout the arena.

When I got to my truck after the game, tears poured out of me like I was attending a memorial service. They weren't tears of sadness, though. They were tears of fierce pride.I was proud that two Alberta teams played in the championship game. I was proud to be a former coach and player. I was proud of the host team and the organizing committee for creating a first class tournament. I was intensely proud of my nephew and his teammates because I have watched many of them play since they took their first uncertain steps on skates. The Knights left nothing in the dressing room and poured their hearts into the game.

More than anything, though, I was proud to know that I am a hockey player. A hockey parent. A hockey coach. A hockey fan. Hockey makes me shout at the television, jump in the air, wake up at 5:30 on a weekend and occupies a great deal of my waking hours regardless of the season. It's the greatest game around and it's a huge part of who I am.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Ode to Puddles

Last week, we returned to school following our Spring Break. I drew outdoor supervision for the first day back, which, as usual, was full of fun. Kids wanted to tell me all about their adventures, friends made a beeline for friends they had not played with for weeks, and parents were extraordinarily happy to send their children back...

By Tuesday, however, the wheels on our happy return began to wobble. A crisis was afoot, for beneath the incredibly popular tire swings, enormous puddles had developed. We faced an incredibly difficult decision.... Do we dare shut down the tire swings until our school's version of the Great Lakes dried up?

As the Vice Principal, I decided that a proactive approach would be best. Instead of bowing down to nature, we would beat it at its own game. I took my class to the playground before recess and explained that only their ingenuity and effort would prevent a minor crisis - the closure of the tire swing!!! My true leaders emerged as we chipped ice, bailed water and moved sand to ensure the tire swings would not be shut down. I was incredibly proud of my class and its leaders for engineering a joyful day of outdoor recess.

If you know me, you will recognize that my tongue has been planted firmly in my cheek for this post. I love my school and the fact that puddles are as big an issue as we face. After all, who can resist the lure of a puddle? Even better, who can resist a FROZEN puddle?

I grew up on an acreage in Alberta's parkland. As a boy, spring held incredible promise and wonder. Only those who have grown up in the Parkland know the smell of spring amongst the poplars. As the snow melts, it releases the musty smell of leaves, smells prairie dwellers recognize from raking leaves in the fall. Spring means potholes in roads and frozen puddles everywhere. A large percentage of families make the trek to Canadian Tire, Macleod's, Saan, Zellers, Superstore, or UFA to purchase rubber boots because last year's pair is simply too snug. The trek is worth it, because, even though these boots are usually worn three or four times, they allow their wearers exclusive access to water resistance.

When you encounter a puddle, several questions rush through your head (unless you are a dog or a child under the age of 8.) How deep is the puddle? How thick is the ice that covers it? Will the water go over my boots? Is it cold? Will I get in trouble for falling in? How far into the puddle can I walk?

I grew up on an acreage next to Alberta's Highway 21. The ditches were deep and filled with water every spring. Like most kids who grow up on acreages or farms, mother nature provided us with built-in entertainment. We did not need a gaming system, PVR or extended cable. Our environment regularly provided us with levels of challenge and excitement. How deep is the puddle? How thick is the ice? How far can I send my little sister on the ice before she breaks through? What do I need to do to keep myself out of trouble on this one? One year, the melting snow next to the highway revealed a mint-condition Playboy magazine featuring Miss Nude Texas. God blessed Texas, indeed!

Last Saturday, I felt myself return to the joys of my childhood when I took our dog for a walk at the edge of town. There was just enough exposed grass and dead leaves to bring back the smell of a gigantic pile of wet leaves. Every step was an adventure. Sometimes, the snow would hold. Other times, I would plunge to the ground in a layer of white snow and dark, dank water. At one point, I walked on an ice shelf that darkened and shot water upwards with every step I took. I couldn't help but be transported back to my youth, cautiously testing the thickness of the ice as I made my way to the bus stop.

I know that some people cannot stand it when their kids come home wet and muddy. To me, though, it is a rite of spring that no Canadian kid should pass up.