Connections in Cow-Town

The drive to Calgary went quickly, and I soon arrived at the school for my presentation. I was tired from the early drive, but the show went well, the kids enjoyed the singing as always, and were thrilled with the colourful stickers I handed out at the end. Then it was on to Nikki’s house. I hadn’t seen this friend in years–we had met in London, England nearly ten years earlier, and it was she who had initially introduced me to my publisher and his wife. Nikki and I had met online while looking for a baseball team in London (a difficult thing to find, it turns out). But we found each other, discovered that we were both from the same part of the world, and had both attended UVIC. Next thing you know, she had introduced me to a network of ex-pats from Vancouver and Victoria, and I suddenly had a new social circle. When we returned to Canada we wound up on different ends, her in Victoria and me in Toronto, so over the years we lost touch, but now here she was in Calgary, offering to host me for my ten-day stint in the city. The oddest part was, in a completely unrelated twist of fate, since I had seen her last she had married a man who had played soccer with my brother when they were boys, and who had been coached by my father. So I suppose our friendship was meant to me.

My snowy suburban neighbourhood in Calgary

My snowy suburban neighbourhood in Calgary

I arrived at a pretty little house in a cute suburban neighbourhood, and was greeted at the door by Nikki, a rust-coloured lab, and a red-haired baby. I was smitten at once but the baby, who promptly crawled right up to me at speed, grabbed my pants and pulled himself to standing, thrust his arms toward me and said ‘up!’ Wow. I’d never met a friendlier baby. Their dog was equally gregarious, and greeted me at the door every time I came in throughout the course of my stay. So I often found myself in this house with a copper-haired baby on my hip and a copper-coated dog at my heels, and I couldn’t have been happier.

Nikki and I soon caught up, and I was delighted to find her to be the kindest and most energetic of hostesses. I had a large room and a bathroom all to myself in the basement,= so I was more than comfortable in my new lodgings. Her husband had many funny stories to share about his soccer days with my brother, and we spent much time reminiscing about our days in London.

The weather most days was cold, crisp and bright, and I often came out to a snow-covered or entirely frozen vehicle in the mornings. The show I was working was located at the opposite end of town, and as it turns out, Calgary is a fairly well spread-out city. I was shocked to discover that this little town of only 1 million could possibly possess so many highways that seemed to go on quite literally forever. My first weekend there, all I saw was the suburb where I was staying, the tradeshow grounds, and endless stretches of highway. The show was located in a series of buildings in the middle of a huge snowy field surrounded by numerous parking lots, and navigation was a major challenge. It was just so vast! My booth was in a building called the Riding Hall, that normally houses horses when it’s not filled with vendors hawking Christmas wares. The Spruce Meadows show was fabled to be the busiest tradeshow around. I actually had other vendors approaching the first morning to tell me how great the show was last year, and how everyone was expecting big things this year. I was braced for a busy first day.

A common site on my Calgary mornings–one very frosty Sonata.

A common site on my Calgary mornings–one very frosty Sonata.

You could have heard a pin drop at times, the place was so quiet. Everyone was shocked. They had apparently extended last year’s ultra-busy show from two weekends to three, and had expanded the number of vendors substantially, which had the result of diluting the crowds to a significant degree. Vendors saw their sales drop to a fraction of what they has seen the previous year, and our first day wound up being the slowest of the tour so far. The entire first weekend was much the same, with the weakest sales of the trip yet. Spirit Bear sold well in spite of this, still keeping pace with the other books and even outselling them at times, which was surprising, as I found myself pitching it last, or not at all, since the other books were so much easier to get people excited about. But some people would gravitate to the tiny paperback, and again, people here seemed to know about the spirit bear, or to at least be curious, so this was heartening.

After the show was over, I had the rest of the week free, save for a few school visits here and there, so I decided to see the city. I made plans to meet with my childhood friend Mick, who I had last seen when he was about about 8 or 9 years of age. He was in his 30’s now, so this would be quite the reunion. We spoke on the phone and agreed to meet at a place called Model Milk on 17th, a street in Calgary famous for its hip bars and restaurants. I showed up a little late, and found Mick sitting at the bar inside. Now 6’2, this baby-faced child who had always been smaller than me (I am four years older) had grown into a bearded adult that towered over me. The funny thing was, in spite of the beard, his face hadn’t changed all that much, he was still the same boy with dark features and big brown eyes that I remembered from so many years ago. After greeting each other with a hug, we made our way upstairs to another bar where we had the pleasure of watching the chefs prepare our meal. Model Milk turned out to be a fantastic place–formerly an historic former dairy building in uptown Calgary, this character building had been converted into a trendy resto-bar featuring locally-sourced, ethical ingredients made into some very inventive takes on classic dishes. We both ordered the (sustainable) sea bass, and enquired as to what exactly made it so sustainable. The waiter happily explained that they worked hard to ensure that all of the fish served in their restaurant was purchased from ethical fisheries, and only featured fish that were not endangered or overfished. We were quite pleased to be able to enjoy such guilt-free, healthy meal. It was like a scene right out of Portlandia.

Our ethical Calgary dinner spot, Model Milk on 17th

Our ethical Calgary dinner spot, Model Milk on 17th

Mick and I caught up over dinner, and I learned that he owned a profitable snow-clearing business in town. We reminisced about the times when we had played together at each other’s houses in Edmonton and North Vancouver, and I brought up the time that I had made him cry by claiming dislike of his favourite movie, the Never Ending Story. It turned out that he was still a committed fan, and a heated and hilarious debate broke out over which 1980’s children’s movies had the best entertainment value.

When the food arrived, we found that the portions were smallish, but the taste was incredible, and the ingredients truly unique. The price reflected the high-quality ingredients, but I have to say it was worth the money. How can you put a price tag on a guilt-free meal?

After dinner we made our way to Local 510 for a drink, where I was amazed by the friendliness of the staff and the customers. Everyone seemed to know each other, and the vibe was so upbeat and happy, it was truly enjoyable being there. By the end of the night Mick had me convinced that I had to come back for the Stampede, when the entire city apparently shuts down and turns into one big dress-up party, where everyone comes kitted out in cowboy gear. He told me that the hat, boots and belt buckle were more or less requisite, and that the one year he’d decided to dress like a civilian he had felt so out of place that he’d come dressed to the nines every year since. Sounds like my kind of party.

Nikki had a couple of family parties that week, and made a lovely dinner for Troy and I one evening (Troy was also in town working an Arts and Crafts show), so I was kept quite entertained throughout the week. The second weekend the sales were better at the show, thankfully, the final Sunday being the best of all. We had one more weekend to go at the market but I wasn’t to work it. Troy had arranged for a friend to fill in at Spruce Meadows while I made the the journey up to For Mac.

My new bed-buddy took up a little more room than the last one...

My new bed-buddy took up a little more room than the last one…

My last night in town Nikki had 20 family members over for a big dinner, and the house was buzzing with happy children and chattering adults. Always the helpful friend, Nikki insisted on bringing out my books and wound up selling several to her guests. It was a great last night in town, and the next morning I set out early once again to Edmonton, where I had another school visit scheduled. I waved goodbye to my wonderful hosts, their cherubic baby and loving dog, and hit the highway again.

A few hours later I was back in Edmonton, and doing another school presentation. I really enjoy these shows, reading The Night Before a Canadian Christmas, singing A Moose in a Maple Tree and Canadian Jingle Bells along with the kids, discussing various Canadian icons and even doing a bit of teaching about Canadian history and geography. At one school visit in Calgary, the children had surprised me by asking about Spirit Bear. How did they know? Spirit Bear wasn’t advertised in the materials we had sent out to the school, and I hadn’t mentioned a word about it at the presentation. I didn’t even have a copy with me at the time, so I couldn’t offer to sell one to the little girl who came up to me with each in hand and asked to buy one. I was stunned. How had they heard about this? The teacher explained that she had Googled me the day before and found information about Spirit Bear online, so she had shared it with the class. I didn’t have anything with me at the time, so I just opened a file on my computer for my business card that had an image of Annuk on it to show to the kids. They had recently learned about the spirit bear in class as well, so they were all very keen to talk about the bear and hear about the book. After that I decided to start integrating Spirit Bear into my presentations, showing the kids pages from the book and talking about the animals. It turned out to be a great way to end the show, and I found the kids loved learning about the wildlife featured in the story. And what’s more, I loved teaching them about it.

They don't have one of these in Eaton's Centre...

They don’t have one of these in Eaton’s Centre…

After my presentation I headed back to Mick’s parent’s house where I was to stay for another three days. They were delighted to hear that we had reunited and had so much fun together. I went to bed early that night and had another school presentation the next day. Afterwards I jumped in the car and drove straight to West Edmonton Mall. I hadn’t been there since the days when I’d  played with Mick and his brother, and I had great memories of the place. It turns out that it’s just as amazing as an adult. Wave pool! Zip-lines! Underwater Caverns! Stingrays! Pirate ship! Bowling! Roller coasters! Skating rink! What a mall! Really, every mall should have a place where you can PET live stingrays. That really was the highlight, descending into the Underwater Caverns just in time for the stingray feeding and getting a full presentation from the naturalist on site. I was amazed to watch these flat grey creatures behaving just as dogs might, swimming around in circles splashing onlookers and flapping their wings over the rocks at the edge of the enclosure. We were told we could put our hands in the water and pet them, and these wonderful creatures would actually swim right up and allow us to stroke their soft, wet, silky backs. Then the trainer hand-fed each one, identifying them by name, and explaining how each had their own personality when it came to feeding time–one splashing and causing a ruckus so he’d be fed first, another hanging back until the rest had had their fill, then gliding up for an uninterrupted and peaceful meal. It was truly amazing, and I decided I wanted one for my bathtub back home.

Turns out stingrays can be rather affectionate…

Turns out stingrays make affectionate pets…

In all seriousness, though, I am not big on seeing wild animals in captivity in general, so I asked the naturalist where they came from. It turned out that many were rescues with sad stories. Like the giant sea turtles that had been owned by a drug dealer and were caught being smuggled across the American Border. These turtles were in such bad shape and had been in captivity for so long that they could no longer be released into the wild. And the South African penguins, she explained, came from a habitat so polluted that were these birds to be released into the wild, their chances of survival would be incredibly slim. They were actually a part of a breeding program intended to keep the species going should they become extinct in the wild, which seems very likely. This story was so sad to hear, but in a way it reinforced for me how aquariums could have value for such animals, by keeping endangered populations alive and educating the public about their plight. Poor penguins. Who thought you could learn all of this in a mall??

I'm going to have to come back for the roller-coaster

A roller coaster! In a mall!!!

After checking out the pirate ship and the wave pool, I eventually found the roller-coaster and immediately bought a ticket. I was gutted to discover the ride had already closed (I’d spent too much time with the stingrays), and I was offered a refund. I guess I’ll have to return one day to make my dream of riding a roller-coaster in a mall a reality.

Next Blog: Tar Sands Trouble

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About jensera

Jennifer Harrington is a Toronto-based illustrator, writer and graphic designer. She illustrated the best-selling children’s book series 'A Moose in a Maple Tree,' which includes the titles 'A Moose in a Maple Tree,' 'The Night Before a Canadian Christmas' and 'Canadian Jingle Bells.' She is also the owner of JSH Graphics, a boutique graphic design agency that specializes in print and web advertising. With her latest project, Eco Books 4 Kids, Jennifer has partnered with illustrator Michael Arnott to create a series of ecologically-themed ebooks for children. Her next book, 'Spirit Bear,' is due for release in the Summer of 2013. Jennifer offers two different school presentations for her 'Moose in a Maple Tree' collection, an illustration demonstration and a Christmas concert series, which can be booked at She will be taking bookings for school readings of 'Spirit Bear' beginning in October 2013.

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