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Tar Sands Trouble

The Syncrude oil sands project, North of Fort McMurray

The Syncrude oil sands project, North of Fort McMurray

Finally the big day had come…I was to drive North to Fort MacMurray for the Christmas Show. I had heard nothing but terrifying reports on the danger of the highway, the wildness of the weather and the unpleasantness of the town in general from everyone whom I had spoken to about my trip, so I was truly braced for the worst. It was almost disappointing to experience an easy and uneventful drive up, with clear skies and clearer roads. Evening fell as I neared town, however, freezing rain began to whip across the single-lane highway, and I started to see what all of the fuss was about. But I didn’t have to navigate the harsh weather long and soon arrived at my B&B, another house that I was renting a room in. As I approached the house, I could see a woman just leaving to get into her truck. I called out to her, saying that I was the B&B guest, was there anyone inside? ‘Nope!’ she shouted cheerfully. ‘You’re on your own!’ and promptly hopped into her truck and drove away. I was dumbfounded. I discovered the door was indeed open, so I went inside. I was greeted by three large dogs barking loudly from the kitchen, and jumping up over the baby-gate that separated them from the living area. ‘Shhh-shhh!’ I said, trying to calm them, but they only got more excited and barked more loudly, and in their enthusiasm, knocked the gate right off its hinges. A bit startled, I quickly ran to fix it, as I could see the dogs seemed slightly sheepish for being so overzealous and had made no attempt to actually exit the kitchen. I fixed the gate and gave them each a pat–they were all beautiful, friendly dogs, one clearly a boxer cross of some kind, with a long snout and a brindle coat that made her resemble a tiger. There was also a golden retriever and a big shaggy Saint Bernard mix, all equally affectionate with loud barks but no bite. I headed upstairs and discovered an open door to a nicely made-up room with a towel on the bed. When I managed to figure out the WiFi, I found an email from the host explaining that she was out and had left the door open, and that I should make myself at home. So I did.

the-centre-entrance

The Oil Sands Discovery Centre clearly explained the bitumen extraction process,
but it left a few questions unanswered.

A good night’s sleep later, it was tradeshow time. The show started uncharacteristically late the first day, 1pm, which left me the morning free to visit the Oil Sands Discovery Centre. I was keen to find out how they were presenting the oil sands projects to the public. I walked into the building and was surprised to find they were charging $7 for entry. It only cost $6.50 to visit the Undersea Caverns in the West Edmonton Mall, and they had live stingrays. It looked like the Discovery Centre was a bit of a revenue producer in addition to being a hub for oil sands education.

The exhibit was very well designed, I was impressed with by graphics used on the placards.

The exhibit was very well designed, I was impressed with the graphics used on the placards.

I wandered through the exhibit reading the placards on display and snapping photos discretely (I wasn’t entirely certain this wouldn’t be frowned upon). I only had a limited time, so I opted out of watching the many videos available, which seemed to be geared toward much younger audiences anyway, featuring a nutty British professor and a talking drop of oil. As I wandered through the exhibit, I was amazed by the loveliness of the displays. As a graphic designer, I couldn’t help but admire the quality of the layouts, the beautiful photography and perfectly-rendered diagrams, the font styles, colours and sizing. It all made for an impressive and exhaustive display–there were no fewer than ten placards describing in great detail every process involved in removing bitumen from the sand and preparing it for transport–centrifuges, inclined plate settlers, deaeration, separation, catalytic conversion, hydrotreating, distillation, coking, the list went on, complimented by glass tubes of oil and other substances that you could spin around to demonstrate the processes visually. But quite abruptly the displays turned to talk of transporting ‘diluted’ bitumen through pipelines to go to market. I searched everywhere for information on what they actually diluted the oil with before sending it through the pipelines. I couldn’t find any placards illustrating this point, despite there being a huge display on the wall explaining ‘Hydrotransport,’ which is merely the process of moving bitumen mixed with water from the mines to the processing plant. I managed to find an interpreter at the front entryway, and asked him where the information on bitumen dilution was posted. He explained that this wasn’t in fact a part of the display, but he was happy enough to fill me in on it. He told me that the majority of the bitumen is cut with 50% naphtha, an oil by-product produced in the process of ‘upgrading’ bitumen, so it was made on site. When I asked him what naphtha was, he explained that it was essentially the same as lighter fluid, highly toxic and highly flammable. But it was abundant and cheap, since it was a by-product of what they were already doing with the oil, so that was their dilutant of choice. I asked him about the dangers of mixing a highly flammable substance with an oil product, and he agreed that there could be potential for combustion, but that this had not yet been proven. Interesting.

The process of removing and refining the bitumen from the oil sands was illustrated in great detail using diagrams and models.

The process of removing and refining the bitumen from the oil sands was illustrated in great detail with diagrams and models, yet a description of the process of dilution for transport was conspicuously absent.

Another interpreter showed up at this point, so I decided to question her as well, in case she happened to know where this information might be hiding in the display. She concurred that it wasn’t represented on any of the boards, and confirmed all of the claims made by the first interpreter. I said that it was concerning that this fairly significant bit of information had been left out of the exhaustive info in the showroom–every process  had been explained in such excruciating detail except for this one, and it seemed to me like an important point. She assured me that it must have simply been an oversight, and that they often updated the information on display as the technology progressed, so perhaps they would be adding that information to the exhibit soon. Perhaps.

I asked who was funding the Discovery Centre, and I was told that the Alberta Government funded it along with a number of sponsors, including Syncrude and Suncor, who were both running massive oil sands projects just 40 minutes North of town. Strange that these beneficiaries of the oil sands projects would  leave out such an important point in their public educational display: the addition of highly toxic, highly flammable chemicals to an already toxic oil substance, that was then being piped through the country’s forests and cities. It’s funny how these small details can sometimes slip through the cracks.

The Syncrude Aquatic Centre

The Syncrude Aquatic Centre brought odd images to mind.

The tradeshow that weekend was extremely uneventful. I didn’t sell Spirit Bear, as there were concerns that it might prove controversial in this oil town, considering my stance on the pipeline. One thing that made me raise my eyebrows at the show was the Syncrude Aquatic Centre. I can’t imagine wanting to swim in a pool named for an oil company with the word ‘crude’ in the title. It brings unpleasant thoughts to mind.

I eventually met my hosts, who turned out to be a lovely couple plus a friendly downstairs roommate, all originally from BC and very earthy people–not what I had expected to encounter in Fort Mac. The first morning my hostess served me vegan power balls and fresh apple slices for breakfast, and made me a delicious vegetarian enchilada for dinner the same night. That was the last I saw of them, though, as they left Saturday morning for a yoga retreat in Mexico that they had organized, leaving me with the downstairs roommate (an acupuncturist) for company, who kept me happily fed with homemade soups and a delicious vegan, flourless pumpkin pie made with ground cashews and coconut oil. Amazing. I didn’t even need to find my organic cafe, and a good thing that I didn’t, the closest thing in Fort Mac was the local Starbucks.

The highway up to the tar sands projects was snow-blown and littered with giant transport trucks.

The highway up to the tar sands projects was snow-blown and littered with giant transport trucks.

Monday rolled around and it was time for my oil sands adventure. I did a few errands in the morning and had planned to go back to the B&B to pack before driving North, but the radio was sending out a storm warning for the area, with strong winds up near the Suncor plant where I was headed, and snow was falling steadily. I considered not going–I knew most people would have advised me against it, but I couldn’t miss this opportunity. So I headed straight out of town.

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The Syncrude sign seemed welcoming. Upon arrival, I felt anything but welcome.

The drive up was a little scary. Huge logging and oil trucks sped up the two-lane highway, unfazed by the snow and wind. I drove carefully, trying my best to discern where the line in the centre and the edge of the road had actually disappeared to beneath the muddy snow piling on top of them. As I neared my destination, I began to notice that sensation Neil Young had described when he had compared the oil sands to Hiroshima–a kind of choking feeling when you breathe, a caustic sensation in the throat, and a strong, distinct and incredibly unnatural smell…burning oil. I turned off the heat in the car to minimize airflow from outside. The drive went quickly despite the conditions, and I soon saw signs for oil sands projects. Suncor was the closest one, but luckily I had asked the girl at Starbucks (I did break down and finally go there) which projects you could actually get a good view of. I had heard they were not very accessible, and you really needed to go on a tour in the summertime to get any decent visuals. She told me that at Suncor all I’d be able to see was the parking lot, and that Syncrude was worth the extra ten minutes drive if I wanted a show. So I kept on going right past the Suncor signs until I saw Syncrude’s. And oh, what I saw behind that sign. The day was foggy and snowy, so I had been concerned that I wouldn’t be able to see very much. I was dead wrong.

I was hoping I'd be able to get a clear view of the tar sands projects. I wasn't disappointed.

I was hoping I’d be able to get a clear view of the tar sands projects. I wasn’t disappointed.

Countless smokestacks at the Syncrude plant billowed dark smoke into the overcast sky.

Countless smokestacks at the Syncrude plant billowed dark smoke into an overcast sky.

Smokestacks too numerous to count sat bunched together just off the highway, gated off but clearly in view, spewing dark smoke into the white, smudgy sky. It was slightly surreal. There was a little unmanned kiosk with a stop sign at the entryway to the plant, so I pulled over and jogged up to the barricades that separated the road from the developments. I snapped several shots on my camera phone, my fingers quickly going numb from the cold. It was about -20º. I could see a couple of guards down the road at a checkpoint that was the main entryway to the plant. I decided I’d try to engage with them, see how they responded to me, if I would be allowed to get in any further. What happened made me feel like I was in post-war Eastern Germany. As I rolled up toward the guards, I had to wait in line as they spoke to the person in the car in front of me, so I snapped a quick, blurry photo of them before driving ahead. As I pulled up I sensed that this was not going to go over well, so I quickly put my phone down in the mug-holder next to my right elbow.

‘Hi there!’ I said cheerfully through the window.

‘What are you doing here?’ They asked cheerlessly.

‘Oh, I’m just a tourist,’ I said, putting on my best ‘harmless woman’ impression. The guards were women as well, and they weren’t impressed.

‘You actually aren’t allowed to take pictures around here,’ she explained tersely. ‘You’ll have to wait here.’ My heart started beating a bit faster as she eyed my Android accusingly. Would they confiscate my phone? Force me to delete my pictures? I breathed small sigh of relief knowing that I had already sent one photo of the smokestacks to Mikey before I had approached the guards–I’d at least have one piece of evidence remaining that they couldn’t delete.

The guards were not happy to discover a 'tourist' taking photos of the Syncrude project.

The guards were not happy to discover a ‘tourist’ taking photos of the Syncrude project.

The guard was radioing someone else, saying ‘Yes, we have the person here who was taking photos. Yes.’ My God. They had spotted me with my phone and reported it already–they were watching out for things like this!! Not a surprise, with all of the negative press the oil sands had been getting these days, but it was something else to actually experience it. My heart was hammering in my chest. How much trouble was I in?

I wrinkled up my nose and popped my eyes wide open. ‘I heard you could go on tours up here, but only in the Summertime. They told me at the Discovery Centre that this was one of the sights to see up here, they said I should just drive up. I didn’t realize it would be a problem!’

The guard seemed to buy my story and innocent act, and radioed back, ‘It’s just a tourist. Yes.’ Phew. She was still looking at my phone, so I wasn’t sure if I was out of harm’s way just yet.

‘Gee, sorry to cause trouble. I guess I’d better turn around.’ The woman leaned into the car, her face friendly and conspiratorial now. ‘Yes, you can just pull around here. Just don’t take any more pictures, okay?’

‘Sure!’ I exclaimed cheerfully, ‘No problem!’ Wow, I nearly got busted. If I had spoken to them they way I’d spoken to the interpreters in the Discovery Centre, I’m sure I would have been detained. It felt like I was at a checkpoint in a war zone there for a minute. I felt like I’d really dodged a bullet.

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I managed to get in a little closer and take more photos despite my brush with the security guards.

I swung my car around and drove down the opposite road, which led towards the highway, but took a detour at the parking lot. I was out of their sight now, and I wasn’t quite finished with my recon. I pulled into a parking lot meant for busses that brought in the workers, and snapped a few more photos surreptitiously from the car. My heart was racing the whole time. If I got spotted taking more photos after I’d been told not to, I had no idea what might happen. I jumped at the sound of a honking horn, and realized a bus had crept up behind me wanting my space. I quickly pulled out and drove in a little closer to the fence and took a few more shots, and then I sped away (as fast as one can speed in falling snow). My paranoia was in full bloom. How much surveillance did they have, if they’d picked up on me taking those photos so quickly? I wanted to get away before there was any further trouble.

I returned to the highway and drove back to the Suncor project. I decided to check it out since I was there anyway, and Suncor hadn’t yet targeted me as a potential threat. It was true what the girl at Starbucks had told me, there was really nothing to see, just a big parking lot and some fenced-in buildings. Suncor had cleverly kept its development well away from the highway, and had positioned its smokestacks far from the prying eyes of visitors. I could see no evidence in the deep fog of any real industrial activities, save for the whisper of a few smoke stacks off in the distance that meshed in with the white, low-hanging clouds.

But I was satisfied. I had seen the true face of the Tar Sands, even if I hadn’t been able to witness the scarred land, or the enormous tailings ponds. I had seen much more than I had expected, and the reactions of the guards confirmed their insecurity to me–they had a lot to hide.

With a light heart I zipped back to the B&B, packed up my things and headed to the airport. Fort Mac had revealed some of her secrets to me, and I was very pleased indeed.

Nothing to see here–the Suncor project was very carefully tucked away from prying eyes, the best view I could get was of a few buildings behind chain-linked fence.

Nothing to see here–the Suncor project was very carefully tucked away from prying eyes,
the best view I was able to get was of a few buildings behind a chain-linked fence.

On my flight home later that night, I found myself sitting alongside a worker from the Syncrude plant. What are the chances? We had a great discussion, and I gave him the link to my blog. I hope he reads it and finds it educational if nothing else.

Please share this blog with others, so all Canadians can learn more about the large industrial projects happening in this country. 

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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

Across the Plains

The view on the way in to Saskatoon

The view on the way in to Saskatoon

My week in Saskatoon was nothing short of wonderful. My cousin (my Dad’s cousin to exact) is an amazing lady. One of the friendliest, most energetic, and kindest people I’ve ever met, she is also one of the most petit. Standing at only 4’7″, she is a tiny fireball of amazing energy and personality. She and her lovely 20-year-old daughter hosted me in typical Prairie fashion, with plenty of warmth and welcome, even arranging a family dinner one night so that my other relatives (I have a few) in Saskatoon could come by for a visit. I was able to reconnect with an old roommate and dear friend from my University days, which was equally wonderful. I’m so pleased I got the chance to reconnect with all of these great people who I rarely get to see. And staying at my cousin’s place there is never a dull moment, due to the presence of three very cute, very small, very friendly dogs that would race up to greet me whenever I entered the house. The littlest one, a Yorkshire Terrier named Bean, even slept on my bed at night on her little yellow towel, so I was never lonely.

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My adorable housemates

Too cute for words!

Little Bean kept me company at night.

I spent my days in Saskatoon working at Earth Bound Bakery, and I really don’t know where I would have been without that place. The day I left town, I loaded up on sandwiches with thick, freshly-made hemp-seed bread, homemade soups and chocolate croissants made from organic, unbleached wheat flour and organic butter (you can really rationalize that something is good for you if it has enough good ingredients!).

My (almost) guilt-free breakfast treat–an organic latte with a chocolate croissant made from organic, unbleached flour and organic butter.

My (almost) guilt-free breakfast treat at Earth Bound Bakery–an organic latte
with a chocolate croissant made from organic, unbleached wheat flour
and organic butter. Yum!

I set out for Lethbridge at what I thought was a reasonable hour, but I had somehow shortened the driving time in my mind. Google tells us it’s 6 hours 41 minutes, which of course means in perfect conditions with zero traffic and no stops. I clocked in at about 8.5 hours with gas and food breaks (my sandwiches eventually ran out), and at times I felt like the drive would never end. The weather was cold and there were a few flurries at times, but the highways were mercifully clear. I made my way through Swift Current and Medicine Hat (which were both much larger than I expected), and finally, at about 9:30pm, I arrived in Lethbridge. I called my Air B&B hosts to let them know I was nearby, and followed the GPS through a labryinth of similarly-named streets to find the house where I was staying. Vastly different from my Regina accommodations, this was a family home, where I was to stay in the spare room in the basement and share a bathroom with the owners and their two teenage daughters. As daunting as this may sound, it was actually great. The family blew me away with their kindness, hospitality, and down-to-earth attitude. They invited me for home-cooked meals each night, (which always featured beef and were uniquely delicious), and printed out numerous maps to help me find my way downtown, to the show, and in and out of their maze-like suburban neighbourhood. They had a big white cat named Paul who took a liking to me, and the last night I was there I thanked them with a bottle of red wine, which we sat around enjoying over great conversation until the wee hours.

Aside from the oddly complex neighbourhood street system that I was positioned in, Lethbridge was quite easy to navigate. As always I sought out a good organic cafe, and one of their daughters directed me to the next best thing. ‘The Penny,’ a coffee and lunch shop with delicious homemade sandwiches and soups, that nearly gave Earth Bound Bakery a run for it’s money, except for the organic designation. I made it my daily morning stop, which was possible only because Lethbridge was so small and easily navigable. That weekend a snowstorm hit, and I found myself driving (sliding) in about a foot of snow on most streets. At one point, on the way to the exhibition grounds, I tried to round a corner on a quiet, snow-covered street, and my steering and breaks failed me completely. I slid right into the curb and heard a loud ‘CRUNCH.’ Oooohhh, that can’t be good. When I checked the tire, I saw that the rim was pretty badly damaged. I didn’t think I could make it to Edmonton in that state, but I had to get out of Lethbridge. It was a Sunday, and I had to work at the show all day, and Monday was a bank holiday. Yikes! There was nothing I could do for the time being, so I decided to worry about it later.

'The Penny' coffee-house in Lethbridge, home to great homemade eats.

‘The Penny’ coffee-house in Lethbridge, home to great homemade eats.

The Christmas Market itself was smallish, as to be expected, but we still did a respectable amount of sales, and what was really wonderful was that Spirit Bear began to sell well. Part of this, I believe, was due to my improved sales pitch, but it also seemed as though an inordinate number of people knew what a spirit bear was in this town. In Regina, I could count on two hands the people that had actually heard of the spirit bear, yet here every second person seemed to know about it. Many referenced a documentary, and a few mentioned Simon Jackson of the Spirit Bear Youth Coalition having visited Lethbridge to speak about the bear, so word was getting around. On Friday I was shocked to find that Spirit Bear outsold all of the other titles at my booth, which was something I really didn’t expect. But it seemed that people here really connected with the idea behind the book, and appreciated the free learning resources and low eco-footprint. It gave a me a great feeling to see so many people getting excited about the book in its printed form, and not just as a concept anymore.

Monday morning was spent searching for a mechanic’s in Lethbridge that was actually open. I called the car rental company but I soon became trapped in a maze of circular dial pad pressing, and I realised it was all a ruse–I wasn’t going to get ahold of a person that day. Finally I found a Canadian Tire that was open and had a garage. Thanks goodness!!! The mechanics were a team of teenagers, the oldest one being 18, but he looked no more than 15. The head mechanic happened to be there on his day off, and he had a few more years under his belt. He took one look at my tires and told me the front ones were essentially bald, and unsafe for winter driving. He said he wasn’t at all surprised that my brakes had locked up and my steering had failed. He said I should never have been sent out with tires in this condition. This surprised me greatly, as I had specifically requested winter tires from the rental company, as I was driving on dangerous highways, not the least of which was the one to Fort MacMurray.

My damaged rim had to be sacrificed in order to make it to Edmonton.

My damaged rim had to be sacrificed in order to make it to Edmonton.

I explained to them that I needed to get to Edmonton that day, and the boys kindly bumped me to the front of the queqe and hoisted my little car up onto the lift. Before I knew it, they had replaced my rim and rotated my bald tires to the back, so that I’d at least have some traction for my drive North. They advised me to trade the car in as soon as possible, though, and agreed to back me up if the rental company tried to hold me liable me for the accident. Prairie kindness strikes again!!!

I wound up waving goodbye to Lethbridge much later than planned, loaded up with goodies from The Penny, and made my way up North in my newly souped-up vehicle. Luckily the roads were clear, so I didn’t have to test the baldness of those tires yet again, and I arrived safely in the late evening at the home of family friends. This family had been very dear to me as a child, we had often visited each other when my brother and I were young, and we loved playing with their two boys, who were just a few years younger than us. The boys had long since moved away, but their youngest daughter was still at home, and I had only met her once before as an adult. Busy lives, years and distance had caused us to drift apart, though I had seen their parents from time to time when they came through Vancouver.

I was greeted warmly when I arrived, and welcomed in as though I were family. Their daughter even moved into the basement while I was there so that I could sleep in her room. I was touched. My first evening was spent sipping wine, catching up and reminiscing.

My first order of business the next day was to switch out the car. I was nervous that the rental company might try to hold me responsible for the damage, but I had the mechanic’s phone number in case things got dicey. I needn’t have worried. The staff fell over themselves apologizing to me for this terrible inconvenience, and swiftly packed my things into a shiny new upgrade for no extra charge. Now I had a sweet Sonata with brand-new all-seasons (they don’t offer winter tires), and a trunk big enough to actually fit all of my books plus my suitcase. I was ready to roll!

Saying goodbye to the Mitsubishi that got me from Regina to Edmonton in one piece despite the bald tires.

Saying goodbye to the Mitsubishi that got me from Regina to Edmonton
in one piece, despite the bald tires.

My new sweet ride with extra trunk space – all ready to get dirtied up on the road to Calgary!

My sweet new ride with the extra trunk space–all ready to get
dirtied up on the road to Calgary!

That evening I caught up with a friend who lived in town, who I had actually met on a Whistler trip through a mutual friend years before. We went for a drink with his co-workers in the Strathcona area, which I found quite delightful, as it was peppered with brick buildings and charming little shops, bars and restaurants. A welcome break from the series of strip malls that seemed to populate the roadsides of Edmonton, Strathcona is an historic district located in the south-central part of the city, and was once the downtown area of the separate city of Strathcona. It’s now Edmonton’s main entertainment district, filled with theatres and live-performance venues. There are also a number of character buildings in the area including the Canadian Pacific Railway Station and the Strathcona Hotel. Always a sucker for the old part of town, I made a point of walking up and down the strip, popping my head into all of the little shops along the way. It’s so nice to see a city like Edmonton taking pride in their heritage and preserving their historical areas for the people to enjoy, as it truly enriches the experience of the city on the whole.

The Old Strathcona district in Edmonton, Alberta.

The Old Strathcona district in Edmonton, Alberta.

My last night in town, my host and her daughter took me to dinner at one of their sons’ restaurants; the younger of the two boys I had played with as a child had begun a highly successful chain of pizza restaurants using classic Italian cooking techniques and ingredients. The food was delicious–thin-crust pizza made from fresh dough, with tomato sauce made with tomatoes imported from Italy. And we finished  off our meal with a tiny glass of real lemoncello, just like I’d experienced in the old world. Deliziosa!

I was presenting at a school in Calgary early the next day, so I had to wake early for my drive. I was sad to say goodbye even though I’d be returning in ten days time, as reconnecting with these old friends had been amazing, and they felt more like family to me now. No matter what I sell on this trip, the relationships I’ve had the opportunity to re-establish have been more than worth the journey.

One of those boys that I had played with as a child (but had not seen since before my teen years) now lived in Calgary, so his mother insisted that we meet up when I arrived in town. It’s been nearly twenty years since I saw him last, so this ought to be interesting!

Next Blog: Connections in Cow-Town

Prairie Bound

My next blog post was meant to be about how I came up with the idea for Spirit Bear, but I am going to bump that storyline in favour of relating my experiences on my first ‘book tour’ of the Prairies.

As mentioned previously, the Moose in a Maple Tree  Christmas collection was my first experience with children’s books–I illustrated the three-book series for my friend Troy who has his own publishing company, Polyglot.
He wrote and I drew, and for the past two Christmases I have worked various tradeshows and Christmas markets selling the series along with a compilation CD featuring musical versions of each book.

This year it was decided that I would do a Prairies tour. I have visited Edmonton and Saskatoon before, as I have family there, but Regina, Calgary, Lethbridge and Fort McMurray are all new to me. I’m excited!!! Fort McMurray in particular interests me, as I plan to drive North to the Tar Sands to observe the situation up there for myself. I understand it’s a treacherous drive, and tourists aren’t exactly welcomed, but I intend to have my own Tar Sands experience and report on my findings here, so stay tuned.

Troy has kindly agreed to let me to sell Spirit Bear alongside our MIAMT books, so this tour will be a great opportunity to test out our newly printed book on the Prairies markets.

The Dragon's Nest B& B

The Dragon’s Nest B&B, my home for 3 days in Regina

My tour began in Regina at the Signatures show. I arrived at 2pm on Halloween day and got settled in at my B&B, a delightful character house called the Dragon’s Nest. My room was lovely and cosy, and cost a modest $70 per night. It was perfect with a little desk for my computer and a full bathroom down the hall shared with one other guest. I soon discovered that this place was famous among the locals for the colourful dragon statue that sat above the front entryway, as I had only to mention the name when I was out exploring the neighbourhood, and people knew exactly the place I spoke of.

I must say that my first day in Regina was all I could have expected it to be–everyone I encountered was incredibly kind, friendly and helpful, living up to the reputation that Prairie people have earned over the years. Even the neighbourhood animals shared the same warm, welcoming demeanour–cats and dogs alike rushed up to me as I walked down the street, greeting me with wagging tails and friendly purrs, begging for a bit of affection, which I was happy to proffer.

I was fortunate to find that two ladies from Red Deer who were staying in the downstairs suite at the Dragon’s Nest were also working the same show selling Christmas fruitcake, and they kindly offered me a ride to and from the show each day. They even helped me to unload my gear at the B&B on their way to the airport (I had planned to walk and take cabs, as the show was only about a kilometer away).

The first day I arrived at the show to set up, Spirit Bear was there waiting for me. It was my first time seeing it in print, and I held my breath as I turned the pages. I had been terrified that the recycled paper would make the colours look too washed out and dull, and that this would hamper sales. I was prepared for the worst,  so I breathed a sigh of relief as I flipped through the pages–it looked alright! Yes the colours were duller than those in other children’s books, and it lacked the lustre of MIAMT’s coated pages, but it didn’t look bad, and the illustrations were strong enough to shine through despite the natural, muted tone of the pages.

A first copy of 'Spirit Bear,' hot off the presses!

A first copy of ‘Spirit Bear,’ hot off the presses!

My first day at the show, however, I began to worry once again. People didn’t seem to see the tiny, thin paperback stacked neatly beside the colourful MIAMT hardcovers, and passed right over it to pick up the bigger, shinier books. I found myself ignoring Spirit Bear myself and focusing on the Moose books, or selling it with a half-hearted pitch that impressed no one. Had I made a huge mistake? I began to wonder if I should have gone against my beliefs and printed hard covers on new paper–the books would look so much more impressive that way, and would certainly capture people’s attention. But that was not the intention of this project, the whole purpose was to create a book with a low ecological footprint, something that we could be proud of as a ‘green’ company, something that could stand out as a good example in an industry that relied upon new trees and chemically-coated paper to attract buyers. Was it possible that no one would ‘get’ what we were trying to do and actually buy our book?

As the day wore on, my sales pitch got a little better, a bit more confident and concise. I began to realise that I had to ‘sell’ Spirit Bear in the same way I ‘sold’ the MIAMT series, by showing it in it’s best light, and keeping the pitch short and to the point. This had been a struggle for me to learn with the MIAMT series in my first year of selling, as I am no sales person by any stretch of the imagination. But over time you learn what to say and how to say it.

By the end of the show I had a short, confident pitch for my new book that engaged people and made an impact on them, whether they bought the book or not. I discovered that there were a lot of people who really loved the concept, and felt that it was a truly wonderful idea and a beautiful book. They understood the importance of using recycled paper, and once I filled them in on the reasoning behind the choice we had made, they decided they really loved the natural look of the pages. Once again, I breathed a sigh of relief.

The show was a moderate success. I sold 30 copies of Spirit Bear as well as 190 books and CDs from the Moose in a Maple Tree series. I will approach upcoming shows with new confidence, and the knowledge that there are people who can appreciate Spirit Bear, as well as the shiny, colourful books I’ve been known for in the past. I even connected with several Regina-based teachers interested in booking me for school visits in the New Year. So many possibilities ahead, it’s truly exciting.

Earth Bound Bakery and Delicatessen, an amazing organic cafe in Saskatoon.
A great spot for coffee and blogging.

Today I sit in a lovely organic cafe in Saskatoon. I drove up last night from Regina via Moose Jaw, where I stopped in at the Temple Gardens Mineral Spa for a much-needed massage and dip in the mineral pool. After a weekend of sales at the Regina show my neck and back where in rough shape. The deep-tissue massage was wonderfully rejuvenating, and the pool was just incredible, the highlight being the outdoor section where steam rose off of the heated waters into the chilly night air. Floating on my back in the warm mineral water, I had a view of the lamp post and a leafless tree dotted with white Christmas lights, set against a dusky cobalt sky, as tiny flecks of icy snow swirled down and stung my cheeks. It was truly heavenly. A short stint in the steam room completed the visit, and I was ready for my trek to Saskatoon by 7:30pm. It begs mentioning that Moose Jaw certainly earns its reputation as the ‘Friendly City’–everyone I encountered seemed in the best of spirits despite the icy weather, and treated me like an old friend being welcomed back to my hometown. I certainly recommend stopping in at the spa, and Veroba’s on Fairford Street is a great spot for some solid home-cooked food made from scratch.

Mar19 MJ POOL

The beautiful outdoor section of the mineral pool at Temple Gardens Mineral Spa in Moose Jaw

Good home-cooking at Veroba's in Moose Jaw

Good home-cooking at Veroba’s in Moose Jaw

That night I set out in my little mid-sized rental car on roads that had been receiving a healthy dusting of snow throughout the day and over the course of the previous evening. My first hour on the road was clear and ice-free, but as I neared the halfway point of my journey, the roads became caked with snow that was rapidly approaching the consistency of ice. There had been a bit of salt applied in places, it seemed, but overall the highway was incredibly scary. At times I drove straddled between both lanes, as that was the only way to avoid driving on top of what was fast becoming a skating rink. Not a few times I found myself beginning to lose control of the car, and at one point I was certain that I was bound for the ditch, as my little Mitsubishi began fishtailing wildly across both lanes. I kept my cool, pumped the brakes rapidly and steered into the swerve as I’d been taught, and managed to regain control. Thankfully I was alone on that strip of highway–had traffic been heavier at that moment, things could have taken a disastrous turn. For most of the drive I was far from any other cars, with the exception of a number of semis that I passed along the way. It was a good experience in Canadian winter driving for me, and it gave me new confidence in my ability to handle treacherous, icy roads in the dark.

I arrived an hour later than expected at my family’s house, where I was warmly greeted by my cousin’s husband with typical Saskatchewan-style hospitality. He was off to Hawaii first thing in the morning, my cousin was working the late shift and their daughter was already in bed, so he and I stayed up for several hours visiting and pouring over their travel photos from Australia and Cancun. When I finally hit the sack at 1:30 in the morning, I slept like the dead.

I’m beginning to enjoy this Prairie life.

Next Blog:  Headed for Lethbridge

Getting Inspired

Image from 'Twelve Little Girls,' another book still sitting on my back burner, getting slightly singed.

An image from ‘Twelve Little Girls,’ another book still sitting on my back burner,
getting slightly singed.

After the success of our Moose in a Maple Tree Series, I was supercharged by the idea of doing my own book. I knew a bit about the industry now, and had a pretty good grasp on what would sell and how to do it. It suddenly seemed more viable, less daunting. But what would I write about first?

The obvious choice was a book I’d been working on for some time, a true passion project for me. A few years ago I walked into a clothing shop belonging to a friend of a friend, and discovered a series of gorgeously-rendered paintings of  young girls tangled up in a dark forest. Each painting featured a single girl who had somehow become integrated into the woods around her. One was sitting high in the crook of a black, bent tree bough, looking angrily down at some unseen thing below her. Another sat on a carven throne atop a ‘tree ladder,’ in a forest hung with tiny mirrors, the largest of which she had fixed with a rapt gaze .

Vain

The ‘Forest of Mirrors’ image from ‘Twelve Little Girls.’

Another showed a claw foot bathtub, supported by ascending roots, gauzy bath curtains hanging from the tree-branches above, blowing in the wind. Half-submerged in the bathtub lay a beautiful girl with greyish skin, hair hanging lankly over the tub’s rim, her thin, frail limbs dangling corspe-like over the edges. Yet another depicted a girl whose hair had grown into tree branches, and intertwined with the boughs above her, that had reached down and dragged he up off of her feet so that she dangled in the wind like and uprooted weed. Another showed a tall, bent girl carrying a treehouse on her shoulders, with branch-like hair that grew up through the porch and chimney.

Drain Forest Bath

‘Drain Forest,’ another image from ‘Twelve Little Girls.’

This images screamed at me, demanded my attention. I asked the store owner, Gabrielle, who was also the artist, if she had ever considered making this series into a children’s book. She hadn’t, but she loved the idea, and I offered to write stories for the illustration. She was thrilled by this, so I got to work. Soon a new book concept was born, ‘Twelve Little Girls.’ It was told in rhyming couplets, a cautionary tale about 12 young girls who enter a dark forest as friends, and end up separating, straying from the path and becoming entwined in separate fates of their own making. It was dark, it was mysterious, and it rhymed. Gabrielle loved it, and offered to create new artwork to flesh out the full twelve stories (she only had eight paintings to start with). Together we came up with four new girls to add to the mix, and the story became an exciting project. The trouble was Gabrielle had a day job, and these paintings had been done over several years, so it was not a quick process. Again, the back-burner loomed.

And then I heard about the Northern Gateway Pipeline proposal.

When I first discovered that an oil pipeline was being planned by a major oil company to run through an old-growth rainforest in Northern BC, I was pretty stunned. Was this real? Could our government seriously be considering this? They were talking about the Great Bear Rainforest. From what I understand, this area is pretty famous for being a bit of an ecological relic–a true old-growth forest that has never been logged or developed. A place where biodiversity has been allowed to flourish to the point where a unique subspecies of bear has emerged–one that sports a coat of pure white. Where else on earth could you find that? Nowhere, it turned out.

I think that I, like most Canadians, harbour a sense of pride in the natural, often pristine beauty of our country, and have always felt as though Canada had its head and heart in the right place in terms of conservation. It turns out that it just seems that way because we have such a tiny population in relation to our land mass, so we’ve always had so darned MUCH wilderness that destroying it all hadn’t really become a viable option as of yet. But now, it seemed, things were changing.

Grizzlies in the Great Bear Rainforest

Grizzlies in the Great Bear Rainforest

In the wake of this new, unsettling information, I began to educate myself. I leaned about Enbridge, the corporation that wanted to build the Northern Gateway Pipeline. I read about the Tar Sands, with their massive tailings ponds filled with toxic leftovers from the oil extraction process. I learned what bitumen was. Dirty. Sludgy. Super-carcinogenic. Oh, and in order to make it fluid, it’s cut with super-toxic solvents before it enters the pipelines, so that in the event of a spill, you’ll have a caustic mix of chemicals injected into your water supply that will give otherwise healthy people migraines, seizures, and over the long term, cancer. Not the best news I’d heard all day.

I read about the Enbridge bitumen spill down in Michigan. How the Kalamazoo River had more than a million gallons of this stuff pumped into it over a weekend. How it took eighteen hours before a Michigan utilities employee noticed the spill and reported it to Enbridge, who had yet to detect a problem. I watched documentaries about people suffering the after-effects of having a 40KM stretch of river contaminated with this ‘black gold.’ I saw a video made by an ex-Enbridge employee who had been a part of the ‘cleanup effort,’ and had decided to come forth and tell the truth about what had really happened. Cover-ups. Threats. Complete extinction of all life in the river. Rocks and sand poured over oil they knew they couldn’t remove from the environment (or didn’t want to spend the money to do so). Canvas and grass seeds thrown over top. The appearance of a complete and total renewal of the waterway. But dig down a foot or two, and dark, glistening bitumen oil blooms to the surface. The river was ruined. Lifeless.

This terrified me. Could our government actually be considering running a substance this dangerous through an ancient BC rainforest??

In my years at Uni we had made trips up to Carmanah Valley and Clayoquot Sound to study these old-growth forest systems. I had seen them. I knew how they worked.  How precious, rare, unique and invaluable they are to life on Earth. How everything in the system is connected with every other thing, and how losing even one element would compromise the entire system. How these places were precious jewels, the lungs of the planet. And they wanted to bring this deadly, life-extinguishing oil into one of these places?

Surely this was not possible. It seemed like madness.

Potential devastation from a spill by tankers for proposed Northern Gateway project.

Potential devastation from a spill by tankers from the proposed Northern Gateway project.

There was talk of jobs. Of new safety standards. Of the importance of Tar Sands oil in the new economy, of its importance to Canada. And of tankers longer than the Empire State Building navigating treacherous waterways inhabited by humpback whales, orcas, spawning salmon, and this crazy white bear that no one seemed to have heard of before, even though it was one of the mascots for the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. And there were more spills. And more cover-ups.

And there were outright lies. Like when Enbridge created a map for their website that showed  tankers gracefully cruising through a wide bay to alight in Kitimat, undeterred by the pesky network of islands that the map illustrator had conveniently chosen to erase.  Surely this was a joke.

It wasn’t. They believed that people really were stupid enough to swallow all of this propaganda, and shrug their shoulders and look away, as they far too often do.

My first instinct was to DO SOMETHING. This hit me hard. I lived in Toronto now, but I grew up in Vancouver, and BC’s wilderness had been my childhood playground. It was in my blood. I wasn’t going to let anyone spill oil all over my nice, white bears and pretty rainforest.

My first thought was to write a children’s book. It was the one thing I knew how to do (sort of) that might have a little impact. I envisioned a story that took place in the Great Bear Rainforest after an oil spill had hit the area. I was serious about it. I discussed it and workshopped ideas. And then, as so often I have done in my life, I lost faith in my own idea. ‘Who’s going to listen to me?’ I thought. ‘What impact could my book possibly have? It won’t make a difference.’ And with that, I dropped the whole plan.

Months passed and the issue didn’t disappear. My guilt gnawed at me, but my negativity was far stronger. ‘What good can one person do? No one will care about what I have to say,’ I told myself.

That summer I went camping with some friends on a long weekend. We discovered this pristine little lake a few hours North of Toronto, with no buildings or boats, and very few people. Walk-in campsites near the lake, no cars. It was heaven. As we lay on the smooth rocks on the water’s edge looking up at the stars one evening, we began pontificating on the virtues of wilderness. How important it is to the soul. How it’s strange that something so natural, so wonderful, should be so difficult to find and have access to. And something clicked in my head. I brought up the pipeline issue and the rainforest in BC. Everyone agreed it was a horrible plan. Disgusting. Ruinous. How could our government be so greedy, so corrupt?

‘I have to do something,’ I said that night.

‘I have to write this book.’

An inspirational moment.

The actual night that I decided to write ‘Spirit Bear.’

Suddenly it dawned on me that if everyone took the attitude I had been taking, we would certainly fail as a species. Evil would run rampant, since good people preferred to remain silent and feel powerless. I wasn’t going to go down that path. Not anymore. I was going to do whatever I could do, as ONE person. If only a handful of kids read my book and got inspired, I knew it would be worth it. If every person in the world decided to do SOMETHING–whatever that something was–to make the world a better place, then we’d have a better world. Simple. So I wasn’t going to worry about what other people thought. Or whether or not I was ‘good enough’ to put an idea into print. I was going to do this. Because this issue was bigger than me. And it needed my attention.

No more shrugging, shuffling and looking away. That night I decided to write Spirit Bear.

Next Blog: The Birth of a Little White Bear

The Back Story

My first published book as an illustrator, A Moose in a Maple Tree, was copied by Scholastic. Ironically, this is what truly kickstarted my publishing career.

My first published book as an illustrator, A Moose in a Maple Tree, was copied by Scholastic. Ironically, this is what truly kickstarted my publishing career.

Ever since I got into children’s publishing in 2007, I have been inundated with questions from curious folks who seem fascinated by what I am doing and who want to do the same thing. It is astonishing how often people ask me, once they hear what I do, ‘How did you get into that? I have a GREAT idea for a children’s book myself…’ or, ‘I’ve always wanted to write my own children’s book, any advice?’ 

The short answer is that there isn’t one.

It’s a tough game, and one that I am still learning to navigate every day.

In the interest of sharing my experiences with more people,  I have decided to keep a regular diary of my experiences building Eco Books 4 Kids, writing Spirit Bear, and launching and promoting the book. It’s been a crazy ride so far, and I think it’s going to get a whole lot more interesting, so I may as well share it with you. But first I guess I should explain how it all really started.

People always ask me, why children’s books? Did I go to school for this? Take a course?

The answer is no. As long as I can remember, I have been writing stories in my head. On my walk home from elementary school I’d be creating stories about mermaids, fairies and elves and talking to myself like a crazy person. In the summertime my brother and I would play in the woods near our house, and make up fantasies about witches, warriors, dinosaurs and dragons which we acted out in a series of vignettes with various friends. A girlfriend and I created an entire alternate universe populated with alien beings that we wrote elaborate stories around. I once wrote a play about a purse-snatcher while mucking about with some friends in my basement that we wound up performing in front of the entire school a few months later. I just loved making stuff up.

I think I got through school essentially because I had great writing skills. I wasn’t particularly gifted in any other subjects, with the exception of art, (and biology, only because I adored it and worked at it furiously), but it’s incredible how the ability to spell, conjugate and whip out a decent essay in a single evening can get you through almost any subject. My tendency towards ADHD prevented me from becoming a true scholar, but I had the ability to cram and regurgitate, which sadly works in our educational system, so that someone like myself can coast through school on A’s and B’s without actually truly learning or retaining much at all. Pair that with great writing skills, and you can look darned smart. I assure you this is in no way the case.

At any rate, after an ill-fated decision to pursue a BA in Anthropology, (with a minor in Environmental Studies, my true passion), I eventually stumbled into graphic design, one of the few industries where artistic types can earn a reasonable and stable living. I did this for 12 years and never loved it, often hated it. Always I had children’s books in the back of my mind, but it seemed like a pipe dream. Doesn’t everyone want to write a children’s book? Turns out, they do. Why should my work be worthy of print?

So I scribbled ideas, sketched characters, wrote rhyming couplets. I have notes all over my apartment for numerous book ideas that I think have merit. I completed one, a rhyming tongue-twister about a selfish shellfish that I have always meant to illustrate and shop around, but I found it incredibly difficult to believe that my own ideas could really be truly valued by others. So I kept them stored away, nicely warm toasty on my great big back burner.

Then came Troy. I met him and his finance in London England where I lived for a couple of years on a working visa. Awesome people. We kept in touch over the years, and he knew I liked to draw. He told me he wanted to write children’s books and that he’d like me to illustrate for him. I said ‘Sure Troy, sure.’ Didn’t everybody say they wanted to do that? I figured it would never happen.

Troy was an Aussie, so when he and Cheryl-Lynn finally returned to Canada and wed, he was forced to live as her dependent for a year before he was able to take paid work in the country. That’s how we treat our Commonwealth immigrants in Canada.

This turned out to be a good thing for Troy, though, as he now had the time freed up to work on his dream of publishing. He decided to compile a book of recipes made with wine from BC wineries, complete with beautiful full-colour photos of the dishes featured. Very clever, the wineries supplied the the recipes and the photos, happy to get a bit of free PR. Everyone likes wine and food, and the book took off. Soon he had a series and a nice little publishing company called Polyglot.

Troy's first book was a hit, and signalled the birth of Polyglot, the publishing company that would produce my first book series.

Troy’s first book was a hit, and signalled the birth of Polyglot, the publishing
company that would produce my first illustrated book series.

That’s when he approached me to draw for him. I was amazed and thrilled – this was actually HAPPENING!!! I took to the job with relish. I had an older laptop and little free time, and the advance he gave me was enough to support me for exactly two weeks, but I didn’t mind. I was going to be a children’s book illustrator!!!

Many months of hard work later, we had a little paperback on the shelves called A Moose in a Maple Tree. I was never truly pleased (artists never are) with my illustrations, as I felt I hadn’t had the time or technology to make the effort I would have liked. So for three years Troy promoted the book on his own, working trade shows, calling up independent book stores and begging them to stock us, and working with Sandhill, our distributor, to get us into Chapters and Indigo among other places. I sat back and accepted the royalties, but that was the extent of my involvement.

He did great,  our book immediately received a thumbs up from Don Cherry. Story-telling legend Robert Munsch called it a “wonderful book” and CM Magazine gave it 4/4 stars. It has been at the top of the BC best-sellers list every Christmas since it’s release.

I would receive a small cheque every Christmas, the largest of which equalled just over $2000. Not exactly money you can live on, but a nice little bonus for doing nothing, and you get to say you have a book published.

Then came the Scholastic debacle. Troy had sent our book to them twice, once to see if they’d publish us, then a second time to see if they were interested in distributing. Both times he received a firm ‘no thanks.’ But then in October 2010, Scholastic  published  A Porcupine in a Pine Tree, a book with some pretty incredible similarities to ours. We were dumbfounded. It was ANOTHER 12 Days of Canadian Christmas.  With beavers, moose, maple leaves, mounties and even sled dogs. Our 5 hockey sticks were replaced with 5 Stanley Cups.

But the kicker for me was the ending. When Troy wrote the book, the final page was simply meant to be a repeat of the first, a moose sitting in a maple tree. Funny, right? But I thought it sounded like all of these other creatures were being added to the tree as well–whales, polar bears, lobsters, mounties, totem poles… a big crazy jumble of Canadian animals and icons, all up in this maple tree with the moose. It turned out to be a great idea and made the ending infinitely funnier. Guess who else thought it was funny and did the same thing? Scholastic. I was hurt.

Of course Troy questioned them, and they tiptoed around the truth, claiming lack of awareness of our book (despite having  it sent to them twice), then changing their story and claiming they did know about us before they went to press, but it was just a coincidence, they had magically come up with the EXACT same idea, with the same ingredients and ending. Parallel creativity. Only ours came out three years earlier.  And we sent it to them. Twice.

At any rate, fighting a monster like Scholastic would be like fighting city hall and would just make us look bad (it’s children’s books, right? Canadian CHRISTMAS children’s books to be exact). Scholastic knew this, of course–how else could they justify such a blatant theft? Canadian copyright laws favour  loopholes, so we fell right through one.

The silver lining, after the initial outrage, was that WE GOT COPIED!!! By SCHOLASTIC!!! The concept was good!!! And the Porcupine was selling like hotcakes, it was a runaway national best-seller! Imagine what we could have done with Scholastic’s money and distribution power. But all we had was Troy and his one-man publishing show and our little West-coast distributor Sandhill.

The similarities between our book and Scholastic's were impossible to ignore. But in the end, it only gave us added faith in our own product.

The similarities between our book and Scholastic’s were impossible to ignore.
But in the end, it only gave us added faith in our own product.

But this was still good news.

Troy approached me to update MIAMT’s illustrations and release two more he had written, The Night Before a Canadian Christmas and Canadian Jingle Bells, all of which would be released in hard-cover. The same month he asked for my help, I got laid off from my job. It was fate. I was living with a boyfriend at the time, and being a creative type himself, he offered to support me while I worked on the books, so that I could get a new career started. I hate to say it, but that’s essentially what it takes. You need money or a supportive partner in order to put in the time necessary to do something truly substantial. I’m not saying you can’t chip away at it in your spare time and make it work, but it will take much longer and be far more difficult.

[As an aside, I would just like to say that I am eternally grateful to Michael Arnott for the support he gave me that year to create and then promote my book series. A bit of freelance work helped to keep me afloat, but without his support I could never have produced the results that I did. And though we are no longer a couple, we remain the best of friends, and I have pledged to do the same for him–to help him to get a leg-up with his creative work so that he can quit his day job as an art director at a children’s toy company. He is the illustrator of my new book Spirit Bear, and I plan to create a series of books with him that I hope to have success with so we can both ultimately pursue our dreams of leading truly creative lives.]

So I drew for the next six months. I brought MIAMT to a level I was finally pleased with, and created two new books for a three-book series. AND Troy put together a 12-song compilation CD with the songs from our books, plus 9 other Christmas songs by Canadian artists. Now we really had something.

That Christmas, we were back with a vengeance. And now that I knew our book had value and I felt better about my final product, I wanted to be a part of promoting it. I sold the book at tradeshows, did Christmas concerts in schools, contacted media, got us reviews and pr in newspapers and magazines. I even managed to get a spot on CTV Morning Live in Saskatoon, and leveraged that appearance into getting our books onto the shelves of all the Indigo and Coles stores in the city. It was fantastic.

Books

Our new series boasts three hard-cover books, plus a Christmas compilation CD.
All uniquely Canadian.

We cracked the top ten nationally with two of our titles, and MIAMT clocked in at No. 5, hot on the heels of Porcupine in a Pine Tree’s No.1 ranking. That Christmas I made $10,000. Suddenly this was looking like more of a THING. If only I had more books under my belt to promote year round, then I’d really be cooking with gas.

And that was when I came up with the idea for Spirit Bear.

Next blog:

Getting Inspired.