Tag Archives: Stories

Riding Into the Sunset

(This is the fifth post in a series about a recent train trip across the Canadian prairies. The first in the series is here.)

Train Trip (1 of 404)

For a while, I shield my eyes from the blinding sun peeking directly in the dome-car’s front windows. The dazzle subsides when we eventually turn northwest and follow the meandering Assiniboine River, which at times consists of little more than a lazy creek in this area—after drought-like conditions through the summer—and a collection of orphaned oxbows.

Train Trip (4 of 404)

We race the sun toward the horizon as the shadows stretch onto the plain, and the sun’s golden light turns the train’s metallic skin into liquid bronze. The passengers seated in the dome-car cheer, gasp, point their cameras, and smile at the spectacle. While the sky takes on a hundred different pastel hues, a dreamy palette to paint an unforgettable scene, the trees turn to black, backlit by the setting sun. I feel dwarfed by this grandeur and privileged to witness such beauty.

The terrain changes abruptly at St. Lazare, where the two deep scars carved into the prairie by the Qu’Appelle and Assiniboine rivers meet, accentuated by the deep shadows cast by the fading sunlight. The sun soon disappears below the horizon.

Preoccupied—fixated may be a better word—with losing the sun for another night, I failed to notice the latest celestial contender. Bends in the river flash at irregular intervals, reflecting the half-moon’s light, revealing Selena’s presence in the southern sky: a new beacon to lighten our journey into Saskatchewan. The silver rails thread through green, yellow, and red signal lights, pointing the way forward.

The cadence of the wheels on the metal track continues, ticatoc-ticatoc—ticatoc-ticatoc, like a well-rehearsed drum track to this rocking and rolling ballad. However, the sound of the whistle has softened, blanketed by the falling night. The train’s passengers curl into their reclined seats, or slip into freshly-turned beds, summoning sleep. Good night.

Train Trip (3 of 404)

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Saskatchewan-Bound

(This is the fourth post in a series about a recent train trip across the Canadian prairies. The first in the series is here.)

The first 250 kilometres of our journey follow an east-west direction without stops, mostly through farmers fields, save for Portage La Prairie where the train station now doubles as a Greyhound bus station, and a brief hilly interlude over the Pembina escarpment. If I forgot, just for a minute, being on the Canadian prairies, the rolling hills with their numerous creeks and forests could fool me into believing I am back in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, but just for a minute. Created by Lake Agassiz during the glacial period (~13,000 years ago), the escarpment represents a distinct western Manitoba feature, and adds variety to an otherwise flat land.

Train Trip (386 of 404)A sharp turn to the north brings us to a bridge, its shadow sketched onto the floor of the picturesque Little Saskatchewan River valley. It is truly a wonderful day, scenic, picturesque, and relaxing.

Train Trip (392 of 404)We slow down as we roll in to Rivers—RCAF Station Rivers, nearby, was home to No. 1 Air Navigation School, a part of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP), in 1942—and stop barely long enough for a few passengers to board. The whistle sounds, the train shudders, lumbers forward slowly, and then gathers speed for the next leg into the night… and into Saskatchewan.

 

 

 

Don’t Believe Your Eyes

Riverside Morning
Early morning along the North Raisin River

The sun’s rays bounced off the surface of the river, through the early-morning mist, painting the tree-tops in an olive glow. The morning dew soaked through my sandals (not an unpleasant feeling), cleared some of the cobwebs, and made me thirsty at the same time. When I reached the perfect observation spot only a few feet from the bank, I stopped, and shielded my eyes with my hand, as if I was saluting the river. I strained my ears, trying to discern the lyrical burble of the babbling brook—maybe I should call it a babble instead of a burble. I don’t know, I could barely make it out through the ever-present symphony, courtesy of the cicadas trapped inside my head, amplified by the remnants of last night’s drinks and cigars. Maybe they hadn’t particularly appreciated lying on the grass, staring skyward at the millions of twinkling dots made even more brilliant by the almost-absolute darkness of the “campagne,” for what turned out to be almost an hour. Well, I don’t care. I know I enjoyed every minute.

I heard the bullfrog’s song: its rubbery hollow vibrato that reminded me of my youth, and of the shoebox guitars we made with rubber bands. Only three or four beats of the amphibian mouth organ, not the usual “rrribbbittt” but more of a “vvvrrroooottt” if that makes any sense, or “mooootttt.” Then I heard the beaver slam its tail in a loud and deep “kasploooosh” to let me know I had invaded his personal space—sorry. I could imagine the top of its head, more than I could see it, at the leading edge of the arrow of water and trailing ripples, only signs of its presence.

My head cleared just like the fog lifted from the river and disappeared, carried away by an oh-so-soft breeze from the east. I stood still long enough to discern the sound of the downstream rapids. Not the kind of rapids you shoot in a canoe or a kayak, only a bunch of rocks that the low water level revealed around the bend. The water tickled the half-submerged rocks, creating an enchanting pianissimo symphony reminiscent of percussion instruments—mostly high-pitched glockenspiels, sopranos xylophones, tubular bells, claves, and wind chimes—echoing between the tall oaks on either side.

The entire scenery hypnotized me and lulled my senses into total forgetfulness; I forgot I was me, there (here, really), with all my baggage, my experiences, my confusions. For a moment, I became part of the landscape, melted into the scenery… Unable to focus, a retinal overload (if such a term exists. If not, well I just invented it). I closed my eyes. I blinked and saw the trees parade in front of me, their leaves fluttering, their limbs swaying. The aroma of freshly brewed coffee drifting down from the veranda pulled me from my reverie. What a way to begin the day…

Familiar Sights

Montreal Skyline at Dusk
The Montreal skyline at dusk, seen from the south shore.

Some things you never forget…
At the edge of the Saint-Lawrence,
The shadow of Mont Royal at dusk,
Montreal’s skyline painted on the sky.
Bridges stretching over the river:
Mercier, Champlain, Jacques-Cartier.
Umbilical cords, life lines of every day;
Links to memories of our youth…

Where we learned to skip stones on the water
Under the watchful eye of my father.
Giant laker ships sailing by, steaming on
We’d jump when their horn blared, scared.
Cast a red and white spoon, treble-hooked,
Fishing for the biggest northern pike,
But settled for a colourful perch, or the crappie,
Hook, line and sinker swallowed forever;
Long walk home, fishing pole on our shoulders.

 

Operator

Switchboard_1

Long ago—well not that long ago, really—the only way to reach someone on the phone was through the operator.
“What city, please?” she (they were mostly all women back in the days when my Mom was a telephone operator) would ask. They were the “smarts” of the phone.
You could even call someone, long distance, and get them to pay for it. Many a time I found myself telling the operator “I’d like to make a collect call, please…” A teenager far from home, I knew my parents would accept the charges. What a bargain!

And if you were paying for the call with a pocketful of change, you’d better talk fast. The operator would interrupt the conversation, when your credit ran out, and ask you to put more coins to continue the call: “$2.00 for three minutes.” Sad time when your last nickel clanked with this dreary metallic sound as it hit the bottom of the pay phone coin box.

Although it was strictly forbidden to eavesdrop on conversations, I’m sure a little “snooping” only added spice to an otherwise long day, maybe, as long as the supervisor didn’t find out. Some callers even had longer conversations with the operator than with the person they were calling. Jim Croce sure did and wrote a song about it. Something about a faded number on a matchbook, and a girl living with an “ex” friend. That’s just the way it goes…

You can keep the dime.

Stack ’em Up

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Balconies of the Moana Surfrider on Waikiki (Honolulu, HI)
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Balconies of the Moana Surfrider on Waikiki (Honolulu, HI)

An photo essay on vertical growth, stacking them up as high as we can…

Modern architecture. Shapes, geometry, symmetry, colours, lines of the city: a photographer’s candy store… From far and up close, we never lack for something to look at, to compose, to photograph. But soon enough it all starts to look the same, and losing sight of the forest for the trees becomes inevitable. The wide angle lens is never wide enough. Density and vertical expansion create vertigo. Noise, traffic, crowds moving at a dizzying pace; who has time to slow down? Who even knows to stop, take a breath, look around? We’re too busy.

Thankfully, a little distance provides a welcome relief from the constant din, from the incessant assault on the senses, numbing really. But to stack them up we must, to fit more and more of us in that same sought-after space. Growth is inevitable and must be embraced. Faster, faster, we go… Slower, slower, we get… but where?

Nature, beauty, solitude are my refuge. Where sounds and sights abound, senses are filled, yet where I can find a place just for me. Just to be… To discover… Thankful. Undisturbed. Quiet. Even just for a moment.

The stars are still visible in the lightening sky when I set off for a hike. Passed the floating bridge, I step off the trail into the wild prairie tall grass, shiny with giant drops of dew, and venture closer to the water. The white puffs my breath creates mirror the fog rising from the surface of the lake. The air is still. A bird chirps in the distance. A beaver slaps its tail in the water and swims off, only a few feet from me. A lonely merganser emerges from the fog, drifting. Deepening golden hues announce the imminent sunrise and the clouds shuffle over for a better view. A log—one half on land, the other submerged—provides the only seat I need for this show, just for me…

The sun has climbed high by the time I wake from my hypnotic trance, dazed, awed, enchanted, filled with joy, happy. The camper awakes to the smell of freshly brewed coffee and a smile. Morning. Unstacked. Life is good.

Sunrise_Lake Metigoshe (23 of 98)
Sunrise on Lake Metigoshe, North Dakota

Solstice (Fr)

Note: This is the French version of a story I posted a few months ago, in English, here.

Un récit…

Le manuscrit terminé, je m’affairais à la mise en pages avec tous ses détails techniques et visuels, et toutes ses photos. Et cette photo qui m’achalait ; je pouvais faire mieux. J’en étais persuadé chaque fois que je la regardais. Ce passage du manuscrit, de sa vie, méritait mieux.

En noir et blanc, les rails se perdent vers l’ouest, sous ce pont chétif, vers un horizon fade. Les fenêtres noircies de la gare lui donnent un air abandonné.

En couleur, son toit à lucarnes qui ne finit plus surplombe portes et fenêtres qui ressemblent à de grands yeux, chacun avec sa paupière blanche.

L’idée de me rendre à Portage la Prairie, à moto, pour prendre une meilleure photo, me sembla de mise en cette magnifique journée, la deuxième plus longue de l’année. J’invitai mon ami Grégoire à se joindre à moi.

À l’heure convenue, comme toujours, on décolle. Grégoire me suit. J’ai rarement réussi à le convaincre de mener. C’est le début d’une longue danse. On a suivi ce chemin cent fois ; familier mais toujours étranger. Tout semble nouveau… chaque fois.

Les courbes s’enfilent longeant la rivière Assiniboine qu’on n’aperçoit que rarement. On la devine. On la sent tout près. Les champs nous accueillent. Des milliers de fleurs jaunes se joignent au vert à perte de vue. Le soleil descend vers l’horizon alors que le ciel prend des couleurs orangées, roses, jaunes, mauves, pourpres et grises. Les ombres s’allongent. Quel spectacle !

La route dégage une odeur de goudron frais qui nous colle aux narines longtemps après avoir croisé la fin du pavé neuf.

L’arôme de terre cultivée, celui du foin fraîchement coupé, et l’odeur de la rivière flottent dans l’air. Il y a quelques semaines à peine, on sentait les lilas. Il faudra endurer un autre hiver avant de les sentir à nouveau. Et ici, l’hiver dure une éternité. Je blague. Il ne dure que sept mois.

On gagne Portage la Prairie et la gare du CN en moins d’une heure. Je signale à Grégoire de s’arrêter sur l’accotement tout près du passage à niveau. Je tire mon appareil-photo de son sac et me dirige vers les rails. Je m’arrête, ému. Des larmes brouillent ma vue. Je visite cet endroit pour la première fois mais je le connais.

Gabriel, le personnage principal de mon livre, y était passé jadis, étant petit garçon, autiste, dépaysé, perdu. Âgé de sept ans, il avait suivi ce chemin de fer enneigé en direction de Winnipeg, le seul endroit qu’il avait nommé « foyer », mais où il n’habitait plus. Après une visite à la gare, son groupe était retourné à l’institut en autobus, sans remarquer l’absence de Gabriel. Un étranger l’a retrouvé six heures plus tard, par hasard, à six kilomètres d’ici. Il n’aurait pas survécu la nuit. De toutes les pages de sa vie, cette anecdote m’a le plus marqué…

Deux voies ferrées s’étendent vers l’est et se rejoignent à l’horizon. Où frottent les roues du train, l’acier des rails est bleu, reflétant cet immense ciel des prairies ; tout le reste n’est que rouille. On ne distingue plus les traverses à vingt mètres parmi les pierres enduites d’huile. L’herbe masque cette cicatrice tant bien que mal.

Vers l’ouest, les rails sont argentés, éblouissants de lumière, liquides ; on dirait du mercure.

Une fois mes photos captées, Grégoire et moi rembarquons pour nous rendre à la gare, tout près. C’est là que je lui explique ce qu’on vient y faire. Il comprend tout de suite.

Et voici que les cloches se mettent à sonner au passage à niveau. La barrière descend. On voit approcher les phares du train : deux yeux et un nez brillants. Le Via Rail Canada No 6451 entre en gare.

« Le Transcontinental à destination de Vancouver. All aboaaaaaaard ! »

Le train ne s’arrête pas ici. Ses quatre wagons-dômes me rappellent un voyage entrepris avec mes parents et ma sœur à l’âge de sept ans, moi aussi. Alors que le train accélère, le reflet des rayons du soleil sur ses côtés polis m’éblouit. Le train s’éloigne et disparaît, mais son bourdonnement persiste.

Notre mission terminée, on fait le plein, on prend un café et on reprend le chemin de la maison. Le soleil touche presque l’horizon. Plus tôt que je ne l’avais prévu. Il fera noir avant de joindre Winnipeg. Allons.

On suit la Transcanadienne cette fois-ci. On laisse la route de campagne se perdre plus au nord. À cent dix kilomètres à l’heure, les moustiques et autres bestioles se précipitent vers mon phare avant et viennent s’écraser sur ma visière et mon pare-brise. On file.

Comme le crépuscule laisse sa place à la noirceur, un certain effroi s’empare de moi. J’ai l’impression de m’être trop éloigné sur le lac et bientôt je n’apercevrai plus la berge. On dépasse des automobiles, des camions, des autobus. Le phare de Grégoire, toujours visible dans mon rétroviseur de droite, me rassure. On se croirait dans une course contre la montre, contre le soleil, contre la noirceur, contre la vie.

À quelques kilomètres à l’ouest de Winnipeg, j’ajuste mes lunettes et je remonte ma visière que les moustiques ont barbouillée. Je signale à Grégoire, indiquant mon intention de laisser l’autoroute et d’emprunter le chemin de campagne qui nous mènera au bercail. Un autre spectacle, très bref celui-là, allait commencer. Je ne le verrais pas mais j’en serais l’acteur principal. Grégoire, lui, serait aux premières loges.

Nous avions à peine parcouru un kilomètre sur ce nouveau chemin lorsque, dans une courbe, tout devînt une question d’instinct.

Une force invisible s’empare de mon guidon, le secoue violemment, et me projette au sol. Agrippé aux poignées, je glisse sur la chaussée, étendu sur le dos, et ma moto m’écrase la jambe. Je lâche les poignées et poursuis ma glissade. Pendant ce qui m’a semblé une éternité, j’étais ailleurs. Le temps, figé. Je glisse dans le noir, vers l’infini, sans jamais m’arrêter.

Et soudain, j’ouvre les yeux ; la lueur du crépuscule avait cédé sa place à une noirceur d’encre et des milliers d’étoiles brillaient dans ce ciel de campagne. L’effroi m’avait quitté.

Immobile. Couché sur le dos, tout se calma ; les bottes dans l’eau, le cul dans la boue et la tête dans l’herbe. Je fis l’inventaire : ma tête intacte grâce à mon casque, un coude égratigné et une douleur au genou gauche là où le réservoir à essence m’était tombé dessus. Je regarde vers la chaussée et j’aperçois la moto de Grégoire couchée sur le côté, phare et clignotants allumés, tandis qu’il prend ses jambes à son cou en ma direction. Il avait tout vu !

S’attendant au pire, quelle joie eut Grégoire de me voir assis, en vie.

« Bouge pas ! Bouge pas ! »

Je le rassure. Je me lève. Lui, il redresse sa moto et revient. Quelques passants s’approchent pour s’enquérir de ma condition. « Chanceux ! » qu’ils disent. Deux agents accourent. Je suis déjà sur pieds.

« Tout va bien monsieur l’agent. »

Une biche avait bondi du fossé et je la frappai de plein fouet dans le pare-brise. Elle culbuta au-dessus de moi et s’affaissa au milieu de la chaussée. Morte. Comme je tombais quelques mètres plus loin, ma moto, une fois libérée, se redressa sur ses deux roues, descendit vers le fossé et le traversa pour aller se poser doucement sur la pente opposée. Quant à moi, j’avais continué ma glissade quelque vingt mètres plus loin, vers le fond du fossé.

On a démarré la moto et on l’a sortie du fossé. Une fois stationnée tout près, je constate les dommages tout en retirant la boue et les quenouilles du châssis. Pare-brise craqué, réservoir cabossé, pédale de frein tordue. À mon grand étonnement, ma caméra, qui était rangée dans son sac sur le siège arrière, a résisté à l’impact.

On s’entend pour reprendre notre chemin, prudemment, moi sur ma moto et Grégoire sur la sienne. J’enfonce le démarreur comme je l’avais fait une heure auparavant ; le ronronnement du moteur me soulage. Malgré les éraflures, mon casque semble intact, tout comme mes gants et mes bottes. Je ne peux en dire autant de mon veston en charpie. Avant de monter, je m’approche du chevreuil, que je vois dans toute sa beauté pour la première fois. Ses yeux brillent et son gros nez noir reluit.

« Désolé. C’était toi ou moi. »

Je remarque les poils de chevreuil coincés sur mon pare-brise : une sorte de trophée. Je rentre à la maison.

Il faut croire que la deuxième plus longue journée de l’année ne le fut pas assez…

deer

Makena (Big) Beach; A Ka nāpo’o ‘ana o ka lā (sunset) story, Part 3

Maui (805 of 2119)

The few white puffy clouds provided little respite from the mid-afternoon sun. When I started to sizzle, literally, I ventured out into the salty Pacific water to brave the strong shore-break waves of Big Beach at Makena State Park, on Maui’s southwest tip. I was surprised at how warm the water felt. I swam, I floated, I let the powerful waves carry me back to the shore, again and again. The turquoise water so clear, I could see my feet.

A little later, the young lady sitting on the beach a few feet from us went for a swim wearing her wide-brim straw hat, never losing it, not even once. Her long, powerful, even strokes propelled her down the beach; she swam gracefully, gliding across the water, all the while keeping that large hat on her head. She smiled at us on her way back to her spot in the hot sand. A connection. Kindred spirits for a short while, enjoying the hot sand, the refreshing water, the beat of the surf, and later the sunset.

I set up my tripod on the dune at the edge of the brush, getting ready for daylight to give way to dusk. I returned to my beach chair.

— Getting some good shots? the young lady asked, shielding her eyes from the bright sun.

Caught by surprise, a little, I snapped a couple more of the beach, and of my wife sitting on her beach chair.

— I did, thanks! How about you? She waved her smartphone with a thumbs up.

It seemed people left the beach too soon, like fans flocking from the arena when the outcome of the game is already decided; the home team won’t come back. Maybe that’s how beachgoers felt as the clouds moved swiftly across the sun, convinced the game was out of reach. I could count on the fingers of both hands the remaining faithful bystanders who weren’t keeping score. The bright red ball appeared to slide down the Kaho’olawe Island slopes, into the jagged edges of the darkening ocean.

— Good luck with those beach chairs! she said, as we walked away with the chairs still open (I had fussed with them a few minutes—the bad news bears—and capitulated, afraid to break them), the connection about to be broken.

A few hundred feet up the beach, I managed to “unlock” the chairs and fold them, letting out a scream of victory, pointing my fist to the sky. A wave. Goodbye.

Maui (816 of 2119)

A Ka nāpo’o ‘ana o ka lā (sunset) story, Part 2

Maui (152 of 2119)
Three whale spouts (on the left) highlighted against Kaho’olawe Island while another whale breaches on the far right edge of the shot.

Maui (153 of 2119)An earlier post, and a cropped picture (provided above un-cropped), alluded to spotting whale spouts on the horizon while watching the sunset. Unfortunately, I hadn’t come prepared for shooting whale spouts two kilometres out from the beach. Nevertheless, I pushed my 18-75mm lens to its limit and focused on the spouts. I planned on coming equipped just for whale watching the next evening, with my 300mm zoom and tripod. I was in for quite a surprise…

So captivated by the spouts (and whales) on the left of the viewfinder, while composing with the background sloping island and clouds, I never saw what was happening just inside the right edge of my shot. Yes, pure coincidence! I only noticed this breaching humpback a few  hours later, while processing that evening’s photos on my laptop.

Could this be a case of missing the forest for the trees? Or not seeing the big picture? Maybe a little bit of tunnel vision? I’d rather call it pure luck, a series of photographs and an experience to be treasured for a lifetime.

 

A Ka nāpo’o ‘ana o ka lā (sunset) story, Part 1

Maui (917 of 2119)

The warm sand  cradles our feet and fills the space between out toes…

The sun’s dip toward the Pacific Ocean attracts many spectators on Kamaole Beaches, and on the low brick wall separating the beach from the road. Chairs, beach mats, tripods, cameras: ready for the show.

We spot a column of white spray on the horizon—a spout—and soon a second, indicating the presence of whales; turns out they like sunsets too. Mores spouts, fin slaps, a big splash and a fluke bring a certain sense of elation at spotting these giants of the sea, right there in front of us.

Maui (152 of 2119)a

They disappeared from sight, maybe watching the sunset while floating and swaying to the rhythm of the waves.

The sun dove straight for the Pacific without a splash or a fizzle and left everyone who’d been watching in a good mood. Sunsets have that magical effect on people…

I told you I loved sunsets…