Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Summer fun in the Old Town

It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that it is impossible to get anything done in Yellowknife in July.

The last few weekends have been a case in point. A couple of Saturdays ago, I went down to Weaver and Devore, the local bush store, to check out its 75th anniversary celebrations. Before I knew it, I'd made arrangements to attend the Ice Pilots Jamboree that evening down at the Max Ward dock, part of the biannual Float Plane Fly-In. I had a great time at the jamboree. One thing led to another, and I booked a seat on a Buffalo Airways sight-seeing tour of Yellowknife the following day. Who could pass up a chance for a flight on a vintage DC-3? Before that, though, I was up early to attend the Bush Pilot Memorial fly past, up on Bush Pilots Monument. Had to skip the lunch barbecue, because there just wasn't enough time.

The big event this past weekend was the Old Town Ramble and Ride, an annual event celebrating arts and the Old Town. Saturday morning I gleefully added to my bank of "Yellowknife scenics" during a photo tour of Willow Flats and the Woodyard, led by photog extraordinaire Fran Hurcomb. I got most of the way through Wayne Guy's afternoon architecture walk before the rain put an end to the day's excursions. The rain kept me in the house for the next couple of days . . . I really didn't know what to do with myself. Mercifully, the clouds cleared late yesterday, so I got my kayak in the water for a paddle around Latham Island.

No wonder I'm not getting any writing done. Ah well, August is here and things will slow down . . . until September.

Photos clockwise, starting top left: "Buffalo Joe" McBryan receiving a model of his vintage Norseman float plane at the Ice Pilots Jamboree; the crowds checking out Max Ward's Single Otter; scenic truck and shack in the Woodyard; yet another scenic shack in the Woodyard; Buffalo Airways hangar; float planes gathering on Back Bay for the Bush Pilots Memorial fly past; the Weaver and Devore bush store; NWT Pipe Band playing at the Bush Pilots Memorial; Rick and the Relics' farewell gig at the Ice Pilots Jamboree; "Reserved for Max Ward" sign at the dock.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Words of writerly wisdom

A few months ago, a writer for WestWord, the magazine of the Writers Guild of Alberta, contacted me for words of wisdom. Not for herself - she wanted to know what I would you tell myself if I could write a letter to the writer I was when I first put pen to paper.

My thoughts are featured in the current issue of the magazine, along with those of other guild members.

The bottom line? Focus more on doing a good job, and less on whether a particular story is going to published. Work hard and keep the faith.

Still good advice . . . if only I'd take it!

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Remembering Robert Kroetsch

Like everyone else who follows the world of Canadian literature, I was saddened by the passing of Robert Kroetsch a few days ago.

I first came across his celebrated novel The Studhorse Man in the 1990s, while taking a university course in western Canadian literature. The book was right up my alley – great story, told in an absurd and comical tone. I was clearly not alone in my opinion, because the novel had won the Governor-General’s literary award in 1969. The Studhorse Man is only one of countless literary accomplishments; Robert Kroetsch is a Canadian literary icon.

So I was fairly intimidated when I came face to face with the great man in the lobby of St. Michael’s Retreat during the Sage Hill Writing Experience in 2004. Robert Kroetsch had an imposing air – tall, serious-looking, lots of white hair – and on top of that, he’d just been awarded the Order of Canada. I couldn’t muster up the courage to choke out congratulations – I just slithered off to the side and let him pass in silence.

Not that it mattered. Our paths didn’t cross much at Sage Hill – he was there to teach the upper echelon, the novelists; I was taking an introductory fiction class. And then came the evening of the softball game.

I played ball throughout my childhood. Why I stuck with it is one of the great mysteries of our time, because I was really, really bad at it. One year they made me pitch – the ball flew out of my hand too high, too wide, bounced off the ground. I walked almost every batter I faced. They tried to make me short stop, but my ability to stop anything short was practically non-existent, so I was relegated to left field. There I still managed to do my bit to ensure we lost every game. But the most horrifying, humiliation-inducing part of the whole experience was batting – facing down some smug, hot-shot pitcher, swinging at the bad pitches, letting the good ones go by, the gleeful tone in the ump’s voice as he shouted “yer out!”, the ignominy of trudging back to the bench, dragging my bat behind me.

So imagine my surprise and delight when, my first time up to bat at Sage Hill, I actually hit the ball. I didn’t hit it far, so – desperate to make up for a lifetime of softball inadequacy – I flung aside my bat and raced toward first base. Then something happened. I’m not sure if I leaned too far forward, or if my foot slipped, but the next thing I knew I was lying on the ground staring into the eyes of Sage Hill’s Executive Director who was asking if I was all right.

I won’t talk about the bruises and the road rash up my entire left side, or the fact that my head had bounced so hard when it hit the ground that my glasses were almost destroyed and one of my heavy duty earrings (the ones they use to actually pierce your ears) snapped apart and was left lying in the dirt. You know those birds that twitter around the heads of cartoon characters after they take a knock to the noggin? That was me.

After an initial assessment of my injuries, the rest of the gang headed back out onto the field. Robert Kroetsch, who had come out to watch the game, was put in charge of me. Oh, boy. There we sat, me blubbering and shaking, Robert looking taciturn as ever. He was undoubtedly cursing the fates that inflicted the crying woman on him, disturbing his peaceful enjoyment of the game. As I sneaked a peek sideway, Robert fidgeted. Despite my rattled brains, it occurred to me that the man might be shy. Even the most ardent conversationalist would have trouble engaging with me in my current state. If the next two hours weren’t going to be absolute misery for us both, I'd have to give the guy something to work with.

“I really liked The Studman Man,” I snivelled.

“Thank you very much,” he said.

Silence. I took a breath and tried again.

“I read it for a course at Athabasca University.” My voice was still shaking.

“Did you?” He turned to me. “Who taught the course?”

It turned out my professor was a fellow member of the board of NeWest Press. I mentioned that I had travelled to Oxford to take a summer course from the same professor, and had enjoyed it very much. I realized I had managed to squeak out that information in close-to-normal tone of voice.

Robert asked me where I was from. It turned out that he had also lived in the North many years before, working on the barges on the Mackenzie River.

“Have you written about it?” I asked.

It turned out he had not.

“Well, I think you should. That part of our history is fading away, and it would take someone like you to really do it justice.”

He said he would consider it. We talked more about the Northwest Territories, and he asked me what I was working on – a collection of short stories set in Yellowknife, I said. Just as my team was coming off the field, Robert was suggesting that, when I was finished with my manuscript, I send it to NeWest for their consideration. One of my fellow writing students stopped in her tracks, and someone else rolled his eyes. If they thought I was exaggerating my injuries to have a private audience with Robert Kroetsch, I couldn’t blame them.

We had a lovely chat. Before I knew it, the game had ended and we went our separate ways. I bought a re-issued version of The Studhorse Man at Sage Hill, and asked Robert to sign it. The inscription reads: “To Cathy – For the pleasure of our Sage Hill conversation about the North. Robert Kroetsch, Aug. 2004.”

The pleasure was all mine, Robert.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The best birthday present ever

For years I’ve been telling my husband that I want to retire from my government job as soon as possible, so I can fulfill my life-long ambition to work as a freelance Bobcat driver. Scooping, twirling, dumping . . . a veritable ballet of steel and rubber . . . does it get any better than that?

Pierre understands the affinity I feel with Bobcat drivers. A sunny Saturday morning a few years back, we were standing in the doorway of our garage during a lull in one of our once-a-decade garage sales. A Bobcat trundled down the street, its engine emitting a jaunty rumble. As the machine drew even with us, I waved at the driver. He waved back. Pierre nodded. “One of your people,” he said.

So when Pierre arrived home this afternoon when I was elbow-deep in compost (it’s planting time in Yellowknife) and instructed me to be ready to go somewhere in 20 minutes, I was perplexed. I filled a couple more buckets with compost, washed the grime from my arms and legs, and changed my clothes. We drove to a vacant lot, where Pierre unveiled my surprise 50th birthday present – a borrowed Bobcat (a little the worse for wear) and a big pile of dirt, just begging to be moved. As I approached, another sight gave me pause – our friend, award-winning cinematographer Alan Booth, lurking in the bushes with one of his high-end cameras. Good lord.

Yet the Bobcat beckoned. I climbed in, and Pierre gave me instructions on how to fire it up and operate it. I spent the next half hour gleefully scooping, twirling, dumping – all of it captured on video. Boy, was I ever glad I changed out of the shapeless T-shirt and lumpy shorts Pierre told me were just fine.

The video will be expertly edited in time for my birthday party, which had to be bumped a couple of weeks because of the NorthWords Writers Festival. The video will show that I am a Bobcat natural - that I am to-the-Bobcat-born, as it were. Except that I kept mixing up the controls for going backward and forward. And raising and lowering the scoop. And the whole thing was pretty jerky. But other than that, I did really, really well.

First thing Monday, I’ll be looking into the possibility of early retirement.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Join me at NorthWords!

I'm be making two on-stage appearances at NorthWords.

On Thursday, June 2, I'll be reading a brand-new piece of flash fiction at the Flash: Your 3 Minutes of Fame open mike, 8 to 10 p.m. in the atrium of the Greenstone Building.

On Saturday, June 4, I'll be participating in the Renewal through Laughter: Writing Humour panel discussion, along with Kathy Reichs, Susan Juby, Ted Staunton, Annelies Pool and Richard Van Camp.

On June 4, I'll also be on hand for the Signings with Sizzle book signing and barbecue at the Book Cellar, noon to 1:30 p.m.

And, because I'm on the NorthWords Board of Directors, in between events I will be putting up display banners, wrangling baking, and whatever else need to be done.

See you there!

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Honouring military spouses

This past Friday evening I had the pleasure of being the guest speaker at a formal dinner to honour military spouses in Yellowknife.

Given the audience, I decided to read “Grey Day, Grey Trout,” a personal essay about the first time I went fishing with Pierre in the East Arm of Great Slave Lake. I don’t want to give away the storyline, but let’s just say that the whole fishing experience was frustrating in the extreme, what with the way the lake trout kept pestering me and interrupting my reading. Pépé and our friend Louis were very generous with their advice throughout the day. They had plenty of opportunity to “coach” me, since there were no fish distracting them by biting their lures. But I digress.

I’d never been to a formal military dinner, much less been the “honoured guest,” which seems to have a specific meaning in the military world. (I thought they were just being polite when they called me that.) I sat at the head table with the Commanding Officer, Brigadier-General Guy Hamel, and his wife Nicola. While the first course was being served, I sat politely waiting for someone important to start eating so I could break into my beef consommé en croûte. Turns out I was the “important” person everyone was waiting for. Go figure.

It was a wonderful experience for me and Pierre. The folks at Joint Task Force North were a fabulous audience, laughing at all the right spots while I was reading. During the breaks they were friendly and welcoming. I was happy to participate in the event, which acknowledged the important contributions of spouses to military life. Many thanks to Major Steve Wright, President of the Mess Committee, for inviting me to speak, and to General Hamel and Nicola Hamel for a great evening.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

NorthWords immanent

We're in the home stretch, heading towards the 6th annual NorthWords Writers Festival, June 2 to 5, here in Yellowknife.

This year's theme is "From Ripples to Waves: Renewing our Spirits through Stories." Twenty-eight authors and special guests will include Kathy Reichs, Susan Juby, Gregory Scofield, Charlotte Gray, Ted Staunton, AmberLee Kolson and Roger Brunt. Northern authors include Jamie Bastedo, Myranda Bolstad, Bill Braden, Marianne Bromley, Albert Canadien, Dawn Curtis, Randy Freeman, Rene Fumoleau, David Malcolm, David Miller, Annelies Pool, Richard Van Camp . . . and me.

For more information, please see the festival website.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

I worry about the ptarmigan

Why did the ptarmigan cross the road?

To get away from Cathy, of course.

About this time of year we see a lot of ptarmigan in Yellowknife. They're cute little gaffers. Well, large gaffers as far as birds go, seeing as how they're part of the grouse family and chubby, to boot. In winter their feathers are white, so they look like good-sized snowballs as they wander around.

And it's the wandering around part that's the problem.

You see, ptarmigan can fly, if they choose to. They just don't seem inclined to most of the time. Couple that with a tendency towards mental laziness, and you have disaster in the making. I walk to work every day, and there's a stretch of willow along Franklin Avenue portion of the route. For the past week, there have been a bunch of ptarmies in these bushes, munching on buds. Alarmed at my approach, they leap out of the willows (where they're fairly safe) and plop down onto the path in front of me. They then scurry along in a panic, trying to out-run me. Given that I have long legs and am in pretty good shape, I'll let you guess how well that works.

Some of the smarter ones eventually head back into the bushes. But there's always one or two who run into the road, unaware that a vehicle making its way along Franklin in the semi-dark poses a far greater danger than I ever would. So far, the terrified birds take to the wing before they're run over. But I really don't need this stress first thing in the morning -- witnessing ptarmigan carnage is not a good start to the day.

A couple of times, as I wander home in the evening, I've seen evidence that not all ptarmigan make it across the road safely. Poor little bird-brains. I worry about them.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Calling all writers! Contest open for entries

The fifth annual Great Northern Canada Writing Contest opened January 1, 2011. To enter you need to write a 1,000 word story (fiction or non-fiction) about life in the Northwest Territories, Yukon, Nunavut, Nunavik or Labrador. Winners receive cash prizes and publication in above&beyond, Canada’s Arctic Journal. Please see the contest page on the NorthWords Writers Festival website for details.