August 30, 2010

On the front step

Front step

Colleges start a couple weeks before the public schools in this area, which means that even though I’m back at work, the little neighbor kids aren’t yet back in school. Since the weather is still warm, I leave toys on the front porch so that they can play outside when I’m at work. Even when they are unsupervised, my front steps are a pretty safe place for them to play. At least, it’s safer than their other options.

Today I came home from campus to find lego blocks scattered all over the steps. When I looked closely, I could see that it was a village of sorts, complete with a swimming pool and diving board. (Ponytail’s lego houses always include swimming pools.) Other days, I find crayon drawings, or trails in the dirt from trucks that have been driven on the same path over and over again. Sometimes the kids are still there when I come home, and they jump up and down and yell my name when I arrive, greeting me as if I had been gone for months instead of hours. I’m thankful for the sunny weather that gives the kids a chance to play outside by themselves, hidden from the world by the river birches on my front lawn.

Yes, that's Ponytail in the photo. She's really grown over the summer.

August 29, 2010

I can see the floor

The result of a fun-filled summer is often a house that looks – well, the phrase “lived in” might be too kind. I’ve been traveling so much this summer that any cleaning I’ve done has consisted mostly of tossing stuff into the garage. My two oldest kids have been moving out gradually this month, taking what they need from the stuff in the garage, but still, we ended up with piles of miscellaneous junk out there.

So that’s what I spent my weekend doing. I filled up trash bins, drove two carloads of usable stuff to the Salvation Army, and basically got rid of anything in the garage that isn’t absolutely necessary. As I was sorting through stuff, I’d say to myself, “Okay, if two grad students didn’t want this, then why would I?”

The garage isn’t completely empty, of course. I can’t get rid of the snowtires, or the tents, or the bicycles. I’m keeping the ice chests, the snowboards, and the bocce balls. I’m going to need that lawn mower and that wheelbarrow. We don’t have a basement or an attic, so we do use the room for storage. But still, I’ve got a lot more space in there then I did on Friday. Tonight, I kept walking out into the garage just to admire my work.

I admit that my weekend wasn’t all cleaning. I went to the farmers’ market with my parents Saturday morning, I had a supper picnic with my husband and two youngest sons at Pretty Colour Lake last evening, and I drove out this morning to the retreat place where I’ll be taking students later this month. But still, that was my biggest accomplishment of the weekend: I cleaned the garage.

And just in time. Classes on our campus start tomorrow. Fall semester is here.

August 26, 2010



Food tastes better outside. It’s true. Even the something simple like a bunch of grapes or a loaf of bread tastes like ambrosia if I’m on a picnic.

When I picked up FireAnt at her house in the city last week, she lugged a wicker picnic basket out to the car. She is a woman who knows the right ingredients for a picnic. She brought a red-and-white checked tablecloth, china plates, and her delicious potato salad, made with local potatoes flavored with olive oil, chunks of garlic, fresh dill, and parsley.

We drove to a park that has picnic tables under pine trees, just above a waterfall. We had the place to ourselves: we could hear the crashing of the water as we spread food out on a table. BusyLifeAlsoWrites joined us, pulling up in a car that looks like a refrigerator. She brought hot tea in a thermos and a dessert that included fresh peaches from the farmers’ market.

We talked as we ate, catching up on our lives, trading stories about our summer travels. Then we walked a trail to the waterfall. The trail ends at an overlook, with big signs that say things like, “Danger! Stay on the path.” We ignored these signs, of course. We always do. They’ve been there for as long as I can remember. Even when I was kid, I thought they were ridiculous.

So we climbed under the railings and slid down the dirt to the little creek at the bottom of the falls. All kinds of trees had come crashing down during a recent windstorm. I climbed around on the fallen trees and onto the rocks at the bottom of the fall, and got close enough to feel the mist. It was hoping the sun would come out so that I could convince Fire Ant to pose naked in front of the waterfall, but the light did not cooperate. It was still overcast and getting dark as we walked back out of the park and headed for home, bellies still filled with delicious picnic food.

August 24, 2010

When he comes to it

When he comes to it

When I first started this blog — almost six years ago — my son With-a-Why was small enough to sit on my lap. Now when he stands next to me, he can look over the top of my head. He’s got the same long, lanky build that his father and brothers have. Like his older brothers, he wears his hair long, pulling it back with a bandana when he plays Ultimate.

In many ways, he’s always been very adult for his age. He started playing chess before kindergarten. He plays amazing classical piano; he’s a motivated and self-disciplined musician. He plays on a Snowstorm City League Ultimate team with college students and grown men. He’s always hung out with his older brothers’ friends.

Yet, still, With-a-Why is very much the baby of the family. He does fewer chores than any of my other kids – heck, he does fewer chores than half of our extra kids. He and my husband read comic books together at night. He’s still sweet and affectionate, even though he’s so much taller than me now. He’s still painfully shy with anyone outside the family, since he’s lived his whole life inside a safe bubble of extended family and extra kids and a piano teacher who is practically family. I have no doubt he will, like his siblings, outgrow the shyness someday, but he hasn't had to yet.

In September, he begins tenth grade. When I looked at him through a camera lens last weekend, I was shocked to see that he’s turned into a young man. Another child growing up, striding off into the world to figure out who he is going to be.



August 23, 2010

And the seasons they go round and round

Almost fall

It’s been a hot summer. We don’t have air conditioning, and the temperature inside our house rose above 90 degrees many times. The humidity made it uncomfortable at times, but I have to admit, I’ve enjoyed a summer that felt like summer. I haven’t worn a pair of jeans in months. I’ve worn the same outfit every day, a thin t-shirt and a pair of worn-out denim shorts. I’ve gone swimming in lakes, ponds, rivers, and creeks. Summer heat has the effect of slowing time down, so that this summer has felt like the summers of my childhood.

But this weekend at camp, the weather suddenly changed. A cool wind came across the river. I find myself digging out the red fleece that’s been buried in my duffle bag all summer. My mother and I went out canoeing, and we noticed that the lily pads were dry and withered, many of them brown. The light had changed: darkness came earlier. Acorns were already beginning to fall from the oak trees. It’s as if someone turned a switch and said, “Let it be fall.”

August 19, 2010


Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter, Boy in Black, and First Extra have been moving into an apartment near campus, the bottom half of an old house that they are furnishing it in a style that might be best described as Early Curb Side. The three of them will be living just across the street from the Classy House, a rental that houses a bunch of students they know, most importantly, Blue-eyed Ultimate Player. Film Guy, Skater Boy, Pirate Boy, and Sailor Boy have already been over to inspect the place, which feels like an extension of our own living room, just ten miles away.

My daughter finished her master’s thesis this summer. (Somehow, she was able to work amidst the noise and confusion of our household. It probably helped that her mother was out of town so much.) She and Boy in Black began orientation for their PhD programs at Snowstorm University this week. Now that I’m home from my travels, I’ve been cleaning my office, writing a syllabus, and getting ready for the start of a new semester. I’ve been thinking about the approach of winter as well: I froze seven quarts of tomato sauce on Tuesday, and I’m waiting for a delivery of firewood. With-a-Why has been thinking about the fall: he actually pulled out his summer reading list and asked me to order the books, so there’s some chance he might even read them before school starts.

Shaggy Hair Boy’s back-to-school project? He had his wisdom teeth pulled out.

He chose to stay awake for the surgery: the dental surgeon just used novocaine. (He’s nineteen so it was his decision, not mine.) “It hurt a lot,” he reported afterwards, talking through wads of bloody gauze, and clutching the four teeth in his hand. His strategy was to stay up most of the night before the surgery, so that afterwards, he was so exhausted he would sleep. The strategy seems to have worked; he has done little but sleep for the last 24 hours.

We’re going up to camp this weekend to swim and play bocce and canoe and sail. But then, starting Monday, I’m back to work, and the summer is over.

New neighbor

New neighbor

The man across the street has decided to start raising alpacas.

August 17, 2010


She stood on my porch, the tattoos on her arms and legs visible on a hot summer day. “Hey, can you do me a favour?” she asked. “I can’t do it because I’m squeamish.”

Woman with Tattoos asks for favors pretty often, but usually they’re simple: she needs some cash or a ride to the store. But this favor was the strangest thing she’s asked me to do. Her cat had a bot fly larvae that needed to be removed.

I walked down to the brown trailer, figuring I’d give it a shot. Little Biker Boy, Ponytail, and Toddler were gathered around the cat when I arrived. “Here are the tweezers,” Woman with Tattoos said, handing them to me. “And here’s some peroxide.” Then she lit a cigarette and averted her eyes.

Little Biker Boy grabbed the cat and held her down. Underneath her jaw, I saw a bulge in her neck – it looked like an open wound, with two holes in it. I poured on the peroxide and poked at the cat’s throat hesitantly with the tweezers.

“Just yank it out,” Woman with Tattoos said from the other side of the room.

I couldn’t tell which part was the larvae, and which part was the cat’s throat. I didn’t want to yank the cat’s throat out. Just then, Little Biker Boy pointed. “Look, you can see it moving!”

He was right. Suffocating under the peroxide, something was moving, beneath the cat’s skin. Some kind of little creature living UNDER THE SKIN. Ugh. I stuck the tweezers into the little hole, clamped on, and pulled.

What came out looked like a slug – about an inch long, light in colour, and still moving. I dropped in on the table, and it kept wriggling. We all stared.

“You did it!” Woman with Tattoos said. “THANK YOU SO MUCH.”

"THAT IS SO GROSS!" screamed Ponytail.

When I left the trailer, the three little kids followed me out, all of them jumping up and down, screaming, “Hurray for jo(e)! She did it!”

Top o' the falls

Green stripe

I think the coolest thing about this waterfall was the green stripe – bright kelly green, as if it had been decorated for Saint Patrick’s Day. Supposedly, there’s a notch at the top of the falls, so that the deeper, fast-flowing water spills over, and that water looks green in comparison to the white water around it. If you look close at the photo, you can see people standing on the platform next to the falls, which should give you some idea how big the falls were. (See, I do take photos of people! If you're in the photo, feel free to post this as your facebook picture.) We walked down to stand at the top of the falls, and from there, I could see a rainbow.

Canyon rainbow

August 15, 2010

Through the lens

Photographer in the mist

In the most famous areas of the park, we saw photographers, often with tripods and camera bags full of lenses. I could see how the incredible landscape, with its churning geysers, meadows filled with bison, and rock cliffs with waterfalls would attract them.

Far more common, though, were tourists who kept taking photos not of the landscape but of themselves, a curious custom that I’ve never quite figured out. Because I’m the kind of person who stops and talks to anyone who passes me, strangers kept handing me their cameras and asking me to take photos as they smiled into the camera. I kept wanting to say, “Um, this is going to be a crappy photo. It’s noon, with harsh sunlight, there are shadows in your faces, and no one is going to even see the landscape by the time all five of you get into the shot.”

Mostly, I didn’t say anything. I would take the camera and obediently snap the shot. But I still haven’t figured out the reason why people on vacation hold up a camera (or a phone) and take a photo of themselves. I mean, the shots don't usually come out very well. And I can’t think that there is any danger that they are going to forget about the time they saw a geyser shoot water 150 feet into the air. Maybe the experience of the fantastic landscape is so incredible that it's the equivalent of pinching themselves to see if it's real. Or maybe it’s just some need for proof, to show the rest of the world, “See? I was here.”



August 12, 2010

Bison, and coyotes, and bears! Oh, my!

Afternoon walk

We saw all kinds of creatures during our vacation. A herd of bison, grazing in a valley. Coyotes trotting across a field at dusk. A young grizzly bear wandering through the woods. Deer grazing in a meadow. Bighorn sheep picking their way across a rocky slope. The glimpse of a wolf moving along a treeline. Herds of elk, a single moose, a black bear cub, a bald eagle in a dead tree. And of course, snakes, slithering along rock warmed by hot springs, absorbing the heat into their own bodies.

At several of the pull-offs, there were people who had high-powered telescopes set up to look at wildlife, and they were quite nice about letting me have a look. We were at the northeastern edge of the park one evening, when we passed a small group of people clustered on a rise, all with binoculars and scopes. I walked over to ask, “What are you all looking at?”

“It’s a bison carcass,” said an older man. “Here, have a look.”

When I looked through the scope, I saw a big dark lump. A dead bison. Then I saw another dark lump, something moving. The second lump lifted its head and looked right at me. A grizzly bear!

“There was a wolf earlier,” the man said grinning.

At another pull-off, a dozen or so people were gathered above a valley that stretched for miles, with a stream winding its way through the bottom. I could see a bunch of elk standing in the stream, clustered together, all facing out, none of them moving. “That’s a defensive posture,” said the nature guide who was scanning the treeline with his telescope. “I’m guessing there’s a wolf about.”

We saw the most wildlife at dusk, of course, sometimes when we were driving along the road and other times when we were hiking along the trails. Signs at the entrance of the park warned us to stay away from the wildlife, but that was almost impossible. It’s hard to ignore a bison when he’s standing on the road a couple feet away from your car. After our first day in the park, I found myself scanning the landscape constantly, whether we were in the car or on a trail, just to see what creatures might be out there.

King of the road

Along the trail

Along the trail

I don't think I quite ever got used to a landscape that bubbles and boils and churns constantly. On one wooded trail, we passed a man and his son who were walking in the opposite direction. I stopped to chat (I'm very much a lazy hiker who is always ready to take a rest and talk), and he said, "When you come to the pool of water around the bend, just sit down and wait a few minutes."

So when we reached the puddle of water, we sat down on a log near the edge of the pool. Steam was rising from the puddle, and when I touched the water, it was definitely hot. After a few minutes, the water began churning, and sure enough, water bubbled up, shooting four or five feet into the air, sending out a steamy sulphur scent.

August 11, 2010

Bison encounter

Near the mud boil

One afternoon, we stopped to walk through an area famous for mudboils. Yes, we saw big pools of mud that was churning and bubbling, much like I’ve always pictured the river of chocolate in Willie Wonka, except the steam smelled like sulphur instead of chocolate. We kept to the sidewalks in that area, since signs warned us that anyone walking through could break through the thin crust and get burned.

Then a bison came through, an angry male bison who was making these strange growling noises. He was followed by another male bison, and they were both moving pretty fast, their hooves sinking into the mud.

These animals are big, up close. They butted heads in a way that didn’t look so friendly.

There were a handful of tourists walking about on the boardwalks. Everyone froze and just stared at the animals. We’d been warned not to step off the boardwalks, so there was no place to go. One of the bison stepped over the boardwalk and then into the mud, maybe ten feet away from me. The other followed.

A park ranger came through, with a walkie talkie. “Try to get back to the parking lot,” he said. “Back behind the cars.”

Once the bison had moved off the boardwalk, we all moved cautiously towards the parking lot. I could hear the clicking of cameras and excited whispers in Japanese, German, and English. From a safer spot, behind the line of cars, we watched as the bison churned up the mud.

“Too much testosterone,” the park ranger said. “The rut has started.”

I wondered what would happen if either bison got too close to the boiling mud. But it didn’t happen. One of the bison decided to climb up the hill, brushing the edge of the boardwalk as he went, and the other followed. Then they both disappeared from our view.

Bison encounter

August 09, 2010

Where Boiling River Meets Local River

A local teenager in a town just north of National Park Atop Active Volcano told us about a swimming spot that was popular with her friends. “It’s got warm spots because it’s where Boiling River comes in.”

“We need to go there,” I said right away. After looking at all the geysers and hot springs and gorgeous pools of steaming water, I was eager to bathe in one. My husband pulled out the map, and she showed us where to go.

“The best time to go is in the evening,” she said. “Just be careful after 9 pm. That’s when the cops come and throw you out.”

“It sounds like you are speaking from experience,” I said. She blushed.

That evening we followed her directions carefully, parking by the side of the road and walking along a river that came winding down between hills covered in golden grasses. Half a mile upstream, we saw about a dozen people sitting in the river. Puffs of steam rose from the river bank where a boiling hot stream went tumbling into the cold river. Just below that convergence, the bathers were lined up, in the warm spots that could be found along that current.

I watched the local folks to see how they negotiated the stream of boiling water. They stepped around it carefully, entering the cold part of the river and walking over the stones until they found a warm spot, then lowering their bodies into the water. Then they mostly lolled about, bodies stretched out in the warmth, talking maybe, or just sitting with their eyes closed, not moving out of their chosen spots. Three teenage girls, lying in the water, were searching for little rocks in the streambed and building cairns on a flat boulder, all the while giggling and whispering to each other. The teenage boy sitting in the water near them was trying hard to ignore them.

I stripped off my outer clothes, piling them on top of the ridiculously white hotel towels that marked us as tourists. (Yes, I wore a bathing suit -- I didn't want to horrify the local teenagers.) The river was shallow, not even up to my waist, but wading through was the craziest sensation. If I stepped towards the far bank, my feet were cold. If I moved toward the near bank, the water was scalding hot. When finally the water temperature felt just right, I sat down in the water. Another bather looked over at me. “You can move the rocks around,” he said. “That’s what everyone does.”

The bottom of the stream was made of rocks that were roughly the size of a 5-pound bag of sugar. I noticed other bathers shifting the rocks, which changed the currents and made comfortable sitting spots. Two kids had even created something shaped like a hot tub, an oval of stones. My husband and I began shoving the rocks around us into position until we were both comfortable. He leaned back until his head could rest against me.

I looked up at the smooth golden hills and at the river which flowed on and around and past me. To my left, I could see low cliffs, edged with puffs of steam from the hot water that came tumbling over the rock. If I reached my left hand out, my fingertips were almost burning. If I reached my right hand out, I could touch the flow of icy cold water moving by in the center of the river. As dusk fell, the air temperature grew a little cooler, and the warm water felt even better. The gurgling of the river covered the quiet conversations of the bathers.

We stayed the first stars began appearing in the sky.

Edged with white

Edged with white

This pool of steaming water was prettier than any hot tub I've ever seen.

Hard to resist

Hard to resist

My husband kept touching the water in all the pools we saw, just to feel how hot it was. I kept lying down on the boardwalks to take photos.

August 08, 2010


The pot where they make the clouds

I’ve never seen anything quite like it. The landscape was bursting with great clouds of steam. We kept seeing pools of boiling water, sometimes clear and blue, sometimes streaked with orange. Streams of hot water shot into the sky and came falling down in a sizzling rain that smelled like sulphur.

I could feel the adrenaline in my blood rising. I’m not the kind of person who stays inside a building when the fire alarm is going off.

Boardwalks were set up near the most active geysers, and tourists walked about, taking photos and eating ice cream cones and chatting happily, as if oblivious to the active volcano churning below them. It seemed crazy really.

“This is where they got their set designs for Star Trek,” I said to my husband as we gazed at strange rock formations and oddly-shaped pools cut into sizzling grey rock.

We came around a curve and saw spirals of steam rising from a meadow, as if a bunch of fires were smoldering. “Another village has been plundered,” my husband said in an ominous voice.

The thermal area was a fascinating, surreal landscape of boiling mud, scalding pools, and dragon-like steam. I kept taking photos, but I couldn’t relax. That night I had anxiety dreams.

I kept trying to imagine living in the landscape hundreds of years ago, before the national park had been established and the parking lots built. I could see how the pools of boiling water could come in handy for cooking. Even now, I was tempted to toss a handful of pasta into the nearest geyser because it would make for such a cool picnic. I don’t know if I could have settled down near a landscape that kept churning and spitting and sending such violent signals. But still, I'd like to go back some day. 


Elk antlers

Elk antlers

On our vacation, we drove through towns where the people seemed obsessed with making arches out of elk antlers. One arch was more than 75 feet across, built from more than 3,000 antlers. Most of the arches didn’t hold up anything or connect two walls or act as a boundary. They were purely decorative.

The elk, one sign told us, shed their antlers every year. So no elk were actually killed for the construction of the arches. That fact did make me feel better as we drove through the town, but it still didn’t explain why all the arches were built. They didn't seem to serve any purpose. I guess if you live in an area of the country where herds of elk keep losing their antlers, you run out of things to do with the darn things.