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

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Confessions of a Shortboarder

I need to get something out in the open. I am nearly 42 years old and I snow blade. I can't help myself. Let me explain.

Quite simply, I love to ski. I've tried snowboarding, but I simply found it was way too much work. Skiing can be plenty of work when the snow is deep, but it is FAR less demanding than riding a mini surfboard on snow. I gave snowboarding an honest shot a few years ago. I'm not an old dog, but I was not ready for a new trick. Skiing is more natural and more fun. Ultimately, fun is one of the main reasons I ski. Hopefully, this post will help you understand the other reasons why I ski.

I played hockey all of my life and have skied for half of my life. As a kid, I got the chance to cross-country ski, but never strapped on downhill skis until much later in life. One of my wife's greatest contributions to who I am was introducing me to the absolute joy of spending the day at a ski hill.

Our first trip was to Jasper's Marmot Basin and it remains one of my favourite holidays ever. I borrowed skis for this trip and I skied like a hockey player. Legs shoulder width apart, knees bent, elbows up. It didn't take me long to notice that the people in the fancy SunIce jackets and stretchy pants didn't ski like me. They actually turned around their poles. Their knees seemed glued together, even when they were mashing through moguls. I didn't let my lack of ski style get in the way of having fun. I found out very early that when I ski, I like to ski fast. Really fast. On the verge of catching an edge, yard sale, Todd Brooker cartwheeling to a lacerated rectum fast. I may not have looked great, but so long as the slope was wide open, I loved to reel off big, wide, ski chattering Super GS turns.

The first pair of skis I owned were a beautiful, brand new pair of K2's. They were bright white with early 90's neon accents. They were gorgeous and I felt like a rock star when I wore them to the ski hill. I was dejected when they got stolen from our local ski area when I was supervising our school's ski club, but my replacements were equally amazing. Salomon Evolution 9000 - over 200 cm of rocketship skis that were incredibly stable at high speeds. Again , when i strapped these boards on, my ski esteem went up immeasurably. Sadly, these skis also had a shorter than expected life. A rocky run at Fernie blew up one of my boards and the cost of the repair would have been the same as a new pair.

Even though I had cutting edge gear, it was the simple act of heading to the hill that consolidated how much I loved skiing. As a beginning teacher, I got to supervise our weekly ski club, which meant a dozen evenings at our local hill, plus multiple adventures with my colleagues. I can honestly say that it was our trips to Canyon and points unknown that helped make my first years of teaching so enjoyable.

For a year after I blew up my Salomons, I rented and borrowed. With my wife on maternity leave, a young family and limited opportunity to hit the slopes, I was content with this arrangement. During this time, a buddy let me borrow his snow blades and my ski life changed. With these mini skis, the hill opened up for me. I could pop through bumps, weave through trees and glide through deep powder. My legs stayed glued together and I could still fly down the hill when I needed to. When a fellow teacher won a brand new pair of Salomon blades at a ski show, I gladly bought them. I was without my own boards and he sold them to me for a third of what a new pair of skis would have run me.

For me, skiing has never been about style. My clothes are functional. I switched from Eddie Bauer basic blue to MEC basic black about 12 years ago. My boots are the same Salomon rear entry boots I purchased when I got my original K2s. My helmet is expired and the same pair of goggles have been strapped to them for the life of the helmet. People give me odd looks in lift lines and people I ski with shake their heads when they see my blades. What they don't know is that I don't really care, so long as I am on a ski hill.

Skiing is, bar none, my favorite outdoor winter activity. It is a fantastic way to spend the day with my family. As my boys have grown up, we have enjoyed many amazing days. Part of the joy of skiing comes from spending time in the mountains. Being outdoors in beautiful places like Big White, Castle, Fernie, Kicking Horse, Kimberley, Lake Louise, Mount Norquay, Revelstoke and Sunshine is truly special. Watching my kids gain confidence and skill is incredibly fulfilling. My boys have turned me on to glade skiing and I have taken them down double black diamond runs. The immense sense of fun and pride we all feel when we tackle something challenging is my favorite feeling.

Best of all, skiing is the one activity everyone in my family can take part in together. It can be an expensive sport, but the opportunity for all of us to be outside, get some exercise and spend time with one another is priceless. Make no mistake - my snow blades are a big part of my enjoyment. They help me follow my kids through the trees and around moguls the
size of Smart Cars.

A few years ago, we were skiing at Revelstoke on a HUGE powder day. Revy is a challenge on the best of days, but in the spring, waist deep Selkirk powder can really test your endurance. I rented a big fat pair of powder skis that day and left my blades in the truck. I'm glad I had the big boards to help me push through the thick stuff, but it wasn't the same. I enjoyed the day with my snowboarding friend who lives in Revelstoke, but it was not the same. My wife and kids got too tired and went home after lunch. My old legs struggled to keep those big skis together. I kept up, but the day lacked the things I love most about a day at the hill.

I love the striking contrast of white snow and blue sky. I love riding a lift through the clouds and taking in the panorama of what looks like a lake of clouds with snow capped peaks in the distance. I love listening to the sounds my younger son makes - the "oh God" when he hits some bumps and his giggles when he crashes. I love watching my older son pick his way through the trees. I love linking a bunch of turns together, stopping to rest and visit with my friends and family.

For me, skiing and fly fishing share the same essential qualities. I get to spend my time outside in beautiful places. I am constantly thinking, planning and problem solving. Best of all, I get to share the experience with the people who mean the most to me. If I had the time and the means, I could spend all day, every day on a ski slope or on a river. Some day...

Thursday, December 20, 2012

My Australian Friends

As a young man, I can honestly say that impression of Australians was formed by popular culture, particularly music. As a Cub Scout, I first learned the words "billabong" and "kookaburra" while singing campfire songs like "Kookaburra" and "Waltzing Matilda". When Men at Work released their album Business as Usual, I learned words like "vegemite" and "down under". As I grew older, my impressions moved past the strange words to a rougher vision. I somehow believed that everyone in Australia was the descendant of criminals. I listened to AC/DC and watched the Mad Max series of movies. In the late 1980s, I watched Australian rules football and films like Crocodile Dundee. Through my university years, I gained a much deeper appreciation for Australian culture through the music of Midnight Oil. I watched films like Gallipoli and Priscilla Queen of the Desert. Recently, an Aussie friend let me read Albert Facey's A Fortunate Life and I watched the film Rabbit Proof Fence. Despite all of these influences, it wasn't until my third year of teaching that I met my first "real live" Aussie.

Over the years, I have been very fortunate to get to know many Australians. I have never been "down under", but I now know enough people that a trip to Australia will be very important to me. The vast majority of the people I have met are teachers who have come to Red Deer on exchange. I can say with absolute clarity that the experience has been amazing for our schools, for my family, and for the Aussies who have uprooted their lives to spend a year in the Great White North.

I am writing this blog for many reasons. The most pressing reason is because I want to express to the Simpson family how much they have enriched my life and the life of my family. Jo and John hail from Adelaide and have spent the past year embracing life in Canada. Their children, Rhiannon and Toby, have attended our school and have certainly made our school a better place. It has been an amazing year. The Simpsons are incredible people. They are kind, thoughtful, humble and appreciative. They have certainly made the most of their time in Red Deer. Their family is particularly special to me because my son is the same age as their children and we have enjoyed many great times together. Sledding, camping, skating, skiing, snowshoeing, picnics, water fights, roasting marshmallows and numerous social gatherings have allowed us to get to know one another in a very special way. I feel that we have all formed lifelong friendships and I am truly looking forward to having our paths cross again. The fact that the lives of my children have been enriched by the kindness of the Simpson family fills my heart with gratitude.

The theme of lasting friendships is another reason to write this blog. Of the four Aussie exchange families I met prior to Jon and Joanne, I have remained connected with four of them. In fact, three of the families have made return visits to Canada. The Ball family and the Garland family have actually done two exchanges. The Collins family made a return visit to Red Deer this summer and it was one of the highlights of my holiday. I have a tight group of friends that have been connected since we were teenagers - something I wrote about in a previous post called Stand by Me. Whenever we connect, we pick up where we left off. I feel very much the same about the people I have met through the exchange program. When our lives crossed paths, it made a lasting impact and I truly feel like I have gained many new friends for life.

Another theme is lasting memories. Some examples include
  • Skiing at Lake Louise with Milton Williams, the Ball family and a group of fifty grade students from Eastview Middle School. 
  • Paul Ball asking me how cold it should be before you wear gloves (he had just finished shovelling his driveway and sidewalk in -30 temperatures.) 
  • Watching brave Aussie teachers Paul Ball, Chis Collins, and Brian Garland learn to ski, skate and play hockey. The moment when Brian Garland finally scored a goal in our Wednesday Teacher Hockey is one of my favorite hockey memories.
  • Going ice fishing with Chris Collins on a beautiful December day when there was no snow on the lake. It was like walking on a frozen fishbowl, complete with cracking ice and the eerie hum of ice heaving. The day ended with an extended visit to the lounge of the Caroline Hotel, where smoke and meat draws competed equally with dead things on the wall and a shrine to figure skater Kurt Browning.
  • Taking John Mitchell to an Edmonton Eskimos/Saskatchewan Roughriders football game where a Saskatchewan fan literally gave John the jersey off his back.
  • Watching Toby Simpson play in our annual Grandview Staff-Student Hockey Game.
  • Crossing the finish line with Joanne, Rhiannon and Toby Simpson in the Red Deer Public Schools Ski Loppet
Australian exchange teachers helped create some of my absolute fondest memories of teaching. Watching Joanne Simpson teach her grade one class the Alberta curriculum with absolute mastery while exposing them to Australian songs and literature has been nothing short of amazing. Listening to Chris Collins speak passionately about the history of his country gave me an incredible appreciation for the similarities between Canadians and our southern counterparts. Spending time in the outdoors and discussing sport with Paul Ball and Brian Garland have fostered a whole new appreciation for the place we live and the games we play. I can say with absolute certainty that each of these teachers has made a positive impact on the schools they worked at. I can say with equal certainty that they have made our community a better place.

It is true that we don't permanently say goodbye. It has been nice to keep in touch through mail, e-mail, social media and return visits. Even though my heart is heavy that the Joanne, Jon, Rhiannon and Toby are leaving our school community, I know our paths will cross again.