Thursday, June 25, 2015

Turnabout is fair play: when a former resident becomes a tourist

Be a tourist in your own town.
A burger of "mass destruction" served up for lunch
 at The Burgernator, Kensington Market.

That's the advice provided to many people, who, due to work scheduling issues, budgetary restraints, health concerns, and other factors (like the inability to find an acceptable parrot-sitter!), cannot take a holiday or vacation away from home.

In other words, a "stay-cation."

It's also given out to travel writers looking for new places to write about. If you want to find a story or story angle that's new in order to pitch an editor an idea unique to the countless other pitches he or she receives during the course of business, try to find something new or unique about your own city that is relatively unknown or not written about previously.

Well, there's another kind of spin on that type of activity.

How about you go back to a city you essentially grew up in, used to know it like the back of your hand, but haven't been there, haven't really spent any time there for at least a few decades? And an old friend, but one who did not grow up there, but has now lived there for 30 years acts as a "tour guide" taking you to places you'd never been to, and knows the city better than you ever did.

For some, that might be a bit jarring. But not me. I experienced it the first week of June and I just rolled with it and enjoyed the whimsical irony about it and pondered about the twists of fate and caprice that lead us to those positions.

Got a rant? Check out this alley.
It works well for Rick Mercer.
I spent a very busy but enjoyable day touring around a few spots in Toronto with an old friend, Dan Arsenault, who I actually hadn't seen since 1977.

Dan is one of those people who was a real catalyst in my life, one of what I like to term "pivotal people," individuals who have a significant impact on one's life, regardless of how long your friendship exists.

We met during Frosh Week at the University of New Brunswick in the fall of 1975, and really hit it off.

We hung out together, drank and partied together, had long discussions late in to the night - and it was Dan who introduced me to the writing of J.R.R. Tolkien and that Middle Earth universe.

But that's not what he did that was so pivotal.

Dan was the one who got me involved in media.

He was in arts, I was in forestry. Like a lot of freshmen, I was overwhelmed by all the extracurricular activities provided for students on campus. I wanted to do it all! I eventually tried fencing, joined the UNB Outdoors Club (they didn't have a paddling club then, or I certainly would have joined it!), the UNB Forestry Association, and probably a few others I've forgotten. And maybe even a few I could not join...("What? You mean I have to be in the faculty of nursing to join the UNB Nursing Society??" There went that idea for meeting single females...)

But Dan, who did a show on CHSR 700, the carrier current AM campus station, kept telling me I should join, that I'd probably be good at it, and really enjoy it. Eventually I listened, and joined, and was part of the executive that helped transition the station to a low-power FM station in 1981.

And at that point, although the writing was not quite on the wall yet, and it would take a few more years, it really was, "Sayonara, forestry degree!"

That first year zipped past, and then it was spring, time to go home for the summer. Dan, went home to Chipman, New Brunswick, I went back to Newmarket, Ontario.

We kept in touch over the summer, mainly via letters (this was LONG before email, the Internet and social media), and a few phone calls. During the summer, Dan told me he was not coming back to UNB in the fall, as he needed to take some time off to figure out what he really wanted to do with his life.

Wandering around the Distillery District, looking for a lunch spot. 

I felt not exactly devastated, but certainly at a loss. However, life went on. Dan dropped in to the campus a few times for a visit, but we eventually lost touch. He moved out to Alberta, I continued on at UNB, and so it went.

Eventually, I graduated (with a business administration degree) and moved out west to begin work at a weekly newspaper, the Barrhead Leader. Little did I know at the same time, my gone-but-not-forgotten pal was moving from Alberta to Toronto.

Fast forward to April 2011. I was just back from Thailand, and somehow we re-connected on Facebook. Then, when I realized I'd be spending a few days in Toronto in early June, I thought of Dan and how much I'd like to see him again.

So we arranged it, met up and hung around Kensington Market for a few hours - one of those places I always knew about but never went to, growing up in Toronto.

We had lunch at a cool little burger joint, did a bit of window shopping, drank some coffee, and just caught up on, oh, 40 years of living.
One of the pieces of public art on display in
Toronto's Distillery District.

Dan was a great tour guide. He knew the area well, even knew some of the merchants there, and it was an enjoyable few hours.

He also took me down an alley, not far from the market area. It was the graffiti-filled alley where TV host Rick Mercer conducts his "rants."

But it didn't stop there.

We hopped a streetcar and rode over to the Distillery District, an area I'd just heard about recently and spent some more time wandering and drinking coffee and chatting.

Dan really knows the city well, and that gave me the opportunity to look at Toronto differently than I had in the past. When taking other friends back there, I'd always been the one "guiding" us to where we wanted to go. This time, I just went along for the ride.

Try it some time. You'll probably get new perspectives and maybe a fresh appreciation for places you'd known or known about years ago.

While it was great seeing parts of the city I'd never seen before, basically, seeing it as a tourist might, of much greater importance was my re-connecting, in person, with someone who I've always considered a special friend, someone whose presence in my life had a profound impact on it.

And it was like we'd never even been apart for 40 years.

That's friendship.

You can travel the world and maybe never find something like that. Or, to paraphrase Irish novelist George Moore, you can travel the world in search of what you need, and return home to find it.

Spending time with good friends is like that: it's a return home.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Peterborough well worth the wait

Little Lake in Peterborough's Millenium Park.
When I was a kid growing up in Newmarket, Ontario, I never spent any time in or around Peterborough. My relationship with the city consisted of turning on CHEX-TV to watch a hockey game not on the regular CBC stations or a football game that was blacked out in the immediate Toronto area.

Peterborough was always that place that I was in a hurry to get through or past or around to get to Algonquin Provincial Park and later, Outlet Beach (now Sandbanks) Provincial Park.

My dad and I almost stayed at a fishing marina outside Peterborough one summer trip, but neither of us was much of a fisherman, it wasn't really set up for camping (although there was a place to pitch a tent) so I voted to go to Algonquin instead and off we went.

Learning to carve a canoe paddle with Russ Parker.
Later on, it was that place that Roger Neilson coached (the OHL's Petes) before beginning his NHL career in Toronto with the Maple Leafs. (A street in Peterborough is named after the late icon).

Of course, all of that was before a group of far-sighted individuals established the Canadian Canoe Museum. It also pre-dated the establishment of many of the great provincial parks like Kawarthas Highlands and Petroglyphs Provicinal Parks in the area.

And it was probably before the local dining scene, craft beer industry, wide diversity of independent coffee shops and many of the other aspects of current life that made Peterborough the thriving but very liveable community it is today.

I'm now finally getting the chance to explore the area and everything it has to offer.
Brewmaster Doug Warren serves up some craft beer.

So far, I've spent two days carving a canoe paddle at the canoe museum, followed by a paddle across Little Lake (which boasts its own huge fountain in the middle of the lake). I also enjoyed several fine meals and sampled some of the craft beers mentioned above.

I expect that to continue over the next few days with another visit to the canoe museum (yeah, I'm a canoehead!) a possible river cruise along the Trent River, and more fine dining (Peterborough actually has more restaurants per capita than Toronto).

So in many ways, I'm getting the best of Peterborough, arguably a better experience than I might have had all those years ago as a youngster.

I can certainly appreciate these kinds of enjoyments better than I would have back then.

So from my perspective, I waited until just the perfect time.

Good things really do come to those who wait...

View of the river from the balcony of my hotel room at Best Western Otonabbee Inn.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Back to Burlington (Ontario - NOT Vermont)

The beacon at the end of the pier.
Mention the name "Burlington" to most people, and there's a good chance they'll say, "Vermont?"

Ditto, if you search for it in Google: When you type "Burlington" into the search engine, it will start to auto fill the search with "Burlington, Vermont."

Now I'm sure the New England state's Burlington is very nice. I hear it's great for winter sports. But there's another Burlington in southern Ontario that's just as nice - or maybe even nicer.

I recently had a chance to return to this small but thriving community of 170,00 that lies on the shores of Lake Ontario, between Toronto and Hamilton.

I say "return" because many, many years ago, I used to visit there regularly with my parents. Of course, a six-year-old's memories are not always detailed and accurate. But I do remember some very specific things, very well.

We went to Burlington to visit my dad's best and oldest friend, Bill Hughes and his wife, Ethel. They were such close friends, that up until I hit puberty, I referred to them as "uncle" and "aunt."

I remember they lived in an apartment duplex of some sort that involved having to go up stairs. I think it might have been some type of semi-detached abode with the different dwellings being up and downstairs rather than side-by-side.

The thing I do remember quite distinctly, though, is an encounter I had with Pixie, the Hughes' calico cat.

I'm an animal lover, always have been. In my last blogpost, I wrote about my first encounter with a pet bird named Joey; Pixie the cat was the second pet I encountered. I liked her - but she didn't like me, at least not then. I had dumped some potato chip crumbs on the living room rug and was trying to feed her the chips, when she reached out and scratched me on the hand, drawing blood. After that, I avoided her until I was 14 - when she decided I was okay, and jumped up on my chest and promptly went to sleep, purring.

Anyway, that's about all I remember about my time in Burlington. I don't recall doing anything there but visiting and getting scratched by a cat (although I did not get cat-scratch fever).

Entrance to the RBG Lilac Walk.
There may not have been that much to do in Burlington in the early 1960s, anyway, it was probably seen by many as just a suburb or bedroom community of Hamilton.

THAT'S certainly changed, as I found out on a recent two-day trip to the area.

I discovered there is much to offer visitors and residents alike - and I didn't get scratched by a cat, this time (although I did see an adorable baby raccoon and a Blanding's turtle at the Nature Interpretive Centre of the Royal Botanical Gardens.)

Take for example, the RBG I just mentioned. It's HUGE. So huge in fact, they run shuttles between the various areas to give visitors the best opportunity to experience everything the gardens have to offer: the Tea House/Centennial Rose Garden, the reflecting pools, Laking Garden (with its iris collection), the Marshwalk Trail (a must for bird lovers), and the Lilac Collection, to name but a few.

If you like your nature a little wilder, Crawford Lake Conservation Area may be a place where you'll want to spend some time. A 468-hectare park, it includes 19 kilometres of trails, one of which connects with the Rattlesnake Point Conservation Area, as well as the Bruce and Nassageaweya Trails.

Approaching Crawford Lake.

The lake is a meromictic lake, with the bottom half of the lake a virtual "dead zone" of water that never circulates with the layer above.

One of the many carvings at Crawford Lake.
Crawford Lake is encircled by a boardwalk, making it easy to traverse the one-kilometre circumference.

Another unique aspect of the trails in this conservation area can be seen in the shape of wildlife sculptures that sit along the trails at various spots. You'll see fish, birds, a wolf, a turtle, a butterfly, and many other critters.

Burlington has access to a much bigger lake, of course. There are many ways to enjoy the Great Lake known as Ontario. You can stroll along the 137-metre pier to the beacon at the end and climb up for a better view.

If you like something a bit more active, Burlington Beach Rentals provides several options for outdoor enthusiasts, including yoga on the beach, kayaking, stand-up paddling, paddleboats - and for those needing to recover from playing, beach massage from one of its RMTs.

Or you can just rent a Muskoka beach chair, stake out a spot on the sand, kick back and chill.

One of the Iroquoian longhouses.
There's lots there for history buffs, too. Crawford Lake not only conserves nature, it also conserves culture.

On site sits an Iroquoian Village, reconstructed and representative of the life of a 15th-century native village that existed by the lake before European explorers showed up.

Several longhouses contain artifacts and displays inside them, depicting life as it was 600 years ago.

The Joseph Brant Museum and Ireland House at Oakridge Farm also present different aspects of the area's history, giving you a glance back at the past.

For a more kid-friendly "farm" experience, Springridge Farm offers a petting zoo, wagon rides, mechanical puppet shows - and some features for adults as well: a general store and a bakery full of good eats (try the salted honey tarts - a Springridge specialty).

The kids love the mechanical chicken puppets at Springridge Farm.

All that is certainly different from what I experienced as a child during visits to Burlington. And although I did see a rather intimidating tom turkey wandering around Springridge, I didn't see any scary-looking calico cats there...