JAIMIE VERNON – MY SUMMER HOLIDAY 1975: Part 3
When last we left our intrepid 12 year-old he was leaving the confines of his home Province for the first time ever with his Grandmother Vernon in her 1972 Skylark; excited and inspired to see what was beyond the moon-like terrain of Ontario on the historic Trans-Canada Highway.
Manitoba is the gateway to the Prairies. In fact, at the border with the other provinces they actually put up a gateway. It’s the start of the other Canada – the one of huge, uninterrupted, tracts of farmland and an occasional town to allow you to stretch your legs, get food and gasoline see how the real Canada lives.
That version of Canada is less prevalent now, but in 1975 it was every bit the idyllic hallmark we came to know on TV shows created by the CBC. In our mind’s eye the prairies were the last bastion of unspoiled Canadiana. Manitoba is the dead centre of the country and back then it had the influence of eastern expansionism and western escapism while its extreme northern limits emptied into the starkness of the Hudson’s Bay and the Arctic Circle – a domain left to, and of, our ancient native culture. Oh, there are the remnants of white European outposts there – mainly driven by the descendants of French fur traders and British Imperialists, but the land and the geography is native only to our First Nations brethren; a reclamation they hold onto dearly as the remainder of their culture disappears slowly in the remainder of Canada.
The Trans-Canada highway route slings low across the bottom of the prairies – close enough to the US border to lure Americans across in a false sense of exotic exploration. In reality, Americans could easily mistake the countryside for Minnesota, North Dakota and Montana. However, that Fargosian accent that is so prevalent there is replaced by our more humble twang as turned into a cliché by SCTV’s Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas aka Bob & Doug McKenzie.
My grandmother and I stuck to this tried and tested (and better lit) Route 1 and deliberately drove around the outskirts of Winnipeg so that we could bunk for the night – we did manage to hit the Assiniboine Park Zoo in Winnipeg on the way back from out west and in 2000 I made it to Winnipeg by plane as part of a promotional tour for musician Greg Godovitz’s book ‘Travels With My Amp’. I attempted to drive to Winnipeg again later that year carrying the lighting supervisor and all the music gear for Greg’s band Goddo but was stopped cold by a moose in Temagami. But, I digress…
We finally landed in Portage La Prairie – a French term meaning “Carry Your Canoe Across The F*cking Grass” – at the end of the day June 16, 1975. We were some 501 miles from our starting point in Thunder Bay that morning. The accommodations were at the Yellow Quill Motel. Forty years later the place still exists!
In all honestly the only part of the town I saw was a quick jaunt to Island Park on Crescent Lake where they had a TC-33 Canadian Forces jet fighter on display. I would add the jet’s photo to my collection of other Canadian statuary on stands I’d already collected in Ontario. We hunkered down for the night and got on with the next leg of our journey in the morning.
We left Portage La Prairie at 5AM and made it to Yorkton, Saskatchewan by 10:10 AM (Granny could make some good time in that old Skylark). Yorkton is a very small town – even today there are only 16,000 inhabitants. It was built in 1882 by a bunch of wealthy businessmen who scooped up property in six townships – which were cheaper to purchase there than in Manitoba. Mostly white Europeans moved into the area and to this day the population is predominantly Ukrainian (and where Lighthouse drummer Skip Prokop’s ancestral family had settled). Our only interaction in the town was mailing postcards at the town drug store. And off we went.
The next seven hours of travel was an endless track of farmers’ fields; Cornfields and other natural comestibles. The monotony was broken up by dotted interruptions from small one-horse towns: Theodore, Insinger, Sheho (where they have a large statue of a puffin for some reason), Foam Lake, Leslie, Elfros, Wynyard, Kandahar (!!!), Lanigan, Plunkett and Viscount. By supper time we’d managed to reach the larger metropolitan area of Saskatoon where we broke for supper. But Granny wanted to carry on. The sun was staying out longer which gave us more travel time. The prairie towns were nice and all, but the Rockies awaited. We plowed on until we hit North Battleford, Saskatchewan for a total run of 534 miles by day’s end. We crashed at the Hitching Post Motel. And like The Yellow Quill Inn before it, forty years later the Hitching Post still sits on Hwy SK-16…the Yellowhead Highway.
Day 5 was going to be less frantic. Our destination was set for Edmonton, Alberta. It was only 250 miles from where we were in Saskatchewan. The sightseeing was framed by two unique observations to my inexperienced, non-worldly, 12 year-old eyes: oil wells on the periphery of Saskatchewans border and bison. Real “oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam” kinda animals. This was no zoo experience. They were running the fields aplenty as we moved deeper into Alberta; and you could photograph them at will. We weren’t in Kansas anymore, Toto.
The adventure that day wound down with a stopover at the home of two dear friends of my Grandmother’s: Jean and Jim Holtforster, who were two transplanted Ontarians living a simpler, cheaper life in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains. We were treated to a home cooked meal by “Aunt” Jean. The meat dish for the evening was moose. My first, ever, taste of venison. It’s a tough meat but not entirely unpleasant. I wasn’t afraid of trying new things. I accepted the hospitality with enthusiasm and chalked it up to another once-in-a-lifetime experience.
We left Jean and Jim the next day so that we could sight-see. There were no plans to venture into British Columbia, so the next few days would be spent in and around the Alberta mountain ranges. It would be the first and last time I would ever see Jean and Jim; Jean would pass in Victoria, British Columbia in May, 2000 at the age of 79, Jim passed the following year at his summer home in Costa Rica at the age of 75.
On June 19, 1975 we entered the world famous Jasper National Park where wildlife and the mountains collide to bring you an endless panorama of surprises from nature. There is no way of properly describing it and photos seem very inadequate. Our first stop was at the Miette Hot Springs near the Fiddle River Valley where you could relax and bask in water hot enough to seer lobster. I went in. My Granny did not.
We continued on through the afternoon and the winding mountain passages that were frequently interrupted by local wildlife like moose, mountain goats, bears, elk, etc. There is no substitute for being able to observe animals in their natural settings. Zoos hold no allure once you’ve experienced, first hand, a herd of rams in their own habitat.
The remainder of the day was spent on the top of Whistler Mountain. This is not to be confused with the similarly named location in British Columbia where the Winter Olympics were held. This mountain was more a hiking destination and less a skiing location. The allure of the peak is its walking trails or, if you were like us, a tram ride to the top so that you could see the expansive Rocky Mountain vista and bird’s eye view of the City of Jasper itself.
The summit is 7,470 feet above sea level. And despite it being dwarfed by, say, Pike’s Peak in Colorado at 14,114 ft. (which I would visit in 1988 and subsequently discover that I have asthma) it is still spectacular; especially when you’ve lived all your life in the suburbs of Toronto at a mere 500 feet above Lake Ontario. I could have stayed there all day – feeling both exhilarated and scared shitless; nothing like the majesty of nature to put my short life into perspective. It, of course, would be put to shame the following day with something greater than the mountain ranges themselves…
NEXT WEEK: OF DINOSAURS AND ICE CAPADES
HAPPY FATHER’S DAY! ONE FOR MY DAD
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Jaimie “Captain CanCon” Vernon has been president of the on again/off-again Bullseye Records of Canada since 1985. He wrote and published Great White Noise magazine in the ‘90s, has been a musician for 33 years, and recently discovered he’s been happily married for 16 years. He is also the author of the recently released Canadian Pop Music Encyclopedia and a collection of his most popular ‘Don’t Believe A Word I Say’ columns called ‘Life’s A Canadian…BLOG’ is now available at Amazon.com http://gwntertainment.wix.com/jaimievernon