Travel: Fruits, Wines, and a Weekend Half

Two years ago this past weekend the world was a very different place.

The world was different enough that we had no issues hopping into the car, driving for nearly ten hours straight, and wending our way across the prairies, over the rocky mountain passes, and into the verdant Okanagan Valley in nearby British Columbia.

for whatever one photo is worth:

The official travel excuse was that I had signed up for an October half marathon in Kelowna. Yet my wife has a healthy collection of extended family who have located to the micro-climate over the past ten years and we were due for a visit.

As much as Canada sometimes deserves its reputation as a vast semi-arctic wasteland, even the locale in a radius hundreds of kilometers from where I sit writing this (which is frozen and snow-covered for half the year), there are places in this vast and diverse country which are fertile and lush.

One of those less-often-frozen zones is the Okanagan Valley, a longitudinally positioned string of deep lakes tucked between the high peaks of the continental divide rocky mountains to the east and the lusher coastal mountains nearer to Vancouver to the west.

The weather-stabilizing effects of this location and the nearby water features means that a climate zone amenable to ample fruit tree orchards and sprawling vineyards exists and makes the region both desirable as a home for hundreds of thousands and a tourist destination for multiples more.

I would move there in a heartbeat given the right opportunity, but two years ago we merely wedged ourselves into the tourist category.

Two days in the area was barely enough to get a taste of everything, though.

On Saturday we visited the local famer’s market in the morning, ate lunch on the pier, collected my race package in the park, wandered through a corn maze on a hobby farm, and visited a wine tasting at a vineyard (pictured) along the road to the house where we had set up camp.

On Sunday I toured a twenty-one point one kilometer stretch of waterfront and urban streetways on foot and recorded one of my better half marathon times in the perfect autumn weather, before slipping back to shower, change and pack the car for the push back across the mountains and home.

Our intention was to make it an annual trip.

A run.

A visit.

Good food.

Fresh fruit and great wine.

Somehow though, the last two years has made the world a very different place and, like so many others around that world, even nearby adventures have fallen to the bottom of our possibilities list.

Local Big (Part Two): Kielbasa

A couple weeks ago as I was getting ready for my summer posting schedule, I wrote about the local “world’s biggest” attractions that are dotted all around the rural countryside near where we live.

As it happens, we took the scenic route home from a weekend camping trip, driving for two an a half hours along the twisting and turning secondary highways connecting various small communities throughout the province.

One of our stops brought us to a giant sausage.

Yes, that’s right.

In the town of Mundare, Alberta lives the world’s largest sausage, or kielbasa to be precise.

The forty-two foot tall fiberglass structure beckons from a roadside park across the street from a gas station and nearby to a locally famous smoked and cured meats company (sadly, closed on Sundays!)

We pulled to the side of the road, parked, and wandered around the odd monument to the rich history of Ukranian immigration to the area. A hundred years ago the settlers who left eastern Europe to settle in the middle of the Canadian prairies staked their future on this sliver of their culture.

And today (well, yesterday) I am able to park beside an obscenely oversized statue of tube of garlic-seasoned meat and ponder why this is among the tallest human-made structure for a hundred kilometers in any direction.

I could probably write an entire series on the odd time-capsule-like effect created by mass immigration to Canada over the last hundred years, how cultural heritage seemed to have frozen-in-time as large groups of people moved here with their unique memories of “back home.” What started as serious traditions or means of income, have continued to be acted out in the foods, styles, dances, and other artifacts of their ancestry, having changed or evolved little, practiced almost exactly as they were from the moment they stepped on the boat, train, plane or whatever vehicle took them from their original lands. As such there is this entire pocket of people who come from, say, one region in eastern Europe in the early twentieth century embracing a cultural identity deeply rooted in the wonderful indulgences of, say, sausage and perogies and pysanka. Meanwhile (at least from what I’ve observed travelling) the generation of cousins who stayed behind have shifted and grown and evolved their culture… as humans are wont to do.

In other words, I have no idea if modern Ukrainians are as deeply connected to sausage, perogies, and pysanka as their Canadian relatives, but I somehow imagine that connection is much more multidimensional over there than over here.

I don’t mean to call out any of my friends of Ukrainian-ancestry because that sentiment seems true of most everyone here who “colonized” this place… well, besides noting that I just drove past a forty-plus foot tall statue tribute to garlic sausage in pretty much the middle of nowhere on the Alberta prairie.

If I come across a sixty-foot tulip, or a wheel of gouda as big as my house, you can bet I’ll be posting some pictures here.

Local Big

In merely one week I’m going to be packing up that little black truck in the background of this photo and driving north with a cargo of camping gear to spend some quality time in the Alberta wilderness.

(No) thanks to the pandemic it’s been two years since I’ve slept in a tent, and coincidentally that same tent will be pitched on about the same weekend in the same vicinity as when this photo was taken… two years ago.

for whatever one photo is worth:

It’s something of a running joke, or insider gag, that every local road trip through the rural country highways usually involves stopping for at least one photo with something big.

No… BIG.

An oversized bird statue. An obscenely large perogy on a fork. A life-sized UFO landing pad. Or the world-famous giant Easter egg, a Ukrainian pysanka, in Vegreville.

Or, for this example, a few kilometers drive from where we had been camping in the bush, we escaped the rain for a couple hours to meander into Vilna, Alberta for some ice cream and (of course) to pose with the World’s Largest Mushrooms.

Like so many World’s Largest objects scattered around Western Canada, the World’s Largest Mushrooms are a photogenic bit of roadside art propped up in a small park, tucked into a tiny neighbourhood, hidden behind the main street of a pinprick town in the middle of the Alberta prairie.

This is as much a kind of local hubris as anything else. For many of these small little towns, despite their small town beauty and unique identity in vast western expanse, the there is little reason besides a fill of the gas tank or a happenstance need for a meal to veer off the highway into their streets. They are lovely little places, but apart from a green highway sign marking their location as one speeds by at a hundred kilometers per hour, few people turn turn gaze from the road… unless as there occasionally may be, there is a World’s Largest… something… anything to be seen.

With some steel and paint and artistic license, any small town in the middle of nowhere becomes a tourist destination.

An excuse to visit. A reason to stop. A purpose for a day-long country-side road trip with a camera and a sense of local curiosity.

And of course, there is usually some ice cream close by, too.

The Mystery of Big Island (Part Two)

Almost three months ago to this day, readers, I introduced you to a local puzzle that I was hoping to solve. Big Island, to catch you up, is a modest chunk of river valley wilderness with a backstory that both intrigued the explorer in me and piqued the curious pathfinder that lives in the uncaged corners of my soul.

I live a short(ish) walk from the winding North Saskatchewan River, a silty mountain-fed prairie waterway that snakes its way across the province and bisects the city in which I live.

If you recall, the city leaders have built policy around the idea of preserving what they term a “ribbon of green” that is our river valley. They do this as a system of trails and public parks rivaling the accessible and recreational natural areas of most cities around the world. In fact, many locals often use the comparison to NYC’s Central Park of which Edmonton’s river valley is approximately twenty-two times the size, but spread across nearly fifty kilometers of riverbanks. Of course, preserving a public green space in the middle of Manhattan is a whole different scale of forethought compared to us just avoiding putting some suburban houses on the unpredictable steep cliffs and sandy soil sides of a prairie river, but don’t say that too loudly if you come to visit our river trails.

I’ve had it in my head to explore south of this preserved system and beyond the city borders, particularly so when I learned that a few kilometers past the so-called “end of the trail” is an oxbow formation in the land, a place where the river once sharply bent and carved off a little bubble of land but has long since shortcut and left a quasi-island nestled into the edge of the same river valley.

I’ve got maps and diagrams to explain all this in part one, and it is where I also explain that this little oxbow island, named Big Island, has a long secret local history and is now slated to become officially protected with a provincial park designation.

All this, and yet no one really knows how to get there.

Of Adventure Runs

Having discovered that such a mystery exists, I got it into my head to find a way to visit.

This past Wednesday evening I proposed an adventure to my running crew. Each Wednesday over the summer, after all, we meet to do an exploration run of some bit of local trail that few of us have previously visited. I asked, with couched expectations, if anyone was interested in trying to find a trail to Big Island.

There were five of us who broke from the even, clear asphalt shortly after seven that evening, and climbed into a narrow stretch of single-track trail leading into the river valley woods along a route I’d often seen but never travelled.

The heat was still lingering with a sweltering, humid hot that made the rolling trails even more of a challenge than they should have been. Yet, the rough trail, unchecked by anyone but the more hardcore of local adventurers, was mere scrambles of dirt and roots and bits of low vegetation swatting our ankles as we ran by trying not to trip or stumble down a steep bit of path and often grabbing onto trees or branches to keep from a fall.

This path towards Big Island was not well-worn.

And in fact, this turned out to not be a path to Big Island at all.

With our phones in hand we plotted our location in the GPS map comparing our real time adventure to a satellite map of our intended destination. We estimated that at our nearest we were merely five hundred meters away from the shores of Big Island. But the path degraded into near non-existence, become a dense shrub-lined fox run at best, and at worst an anthill-infested maze not intended for a bunch of ill prepared runners in running shorts on a weekday evening schedule.

We turned back, unable to reach our destination on the first attempt, everyone a bit disappointed but beyond fine with the adventure and attempt. Meanwhile I secretly plotted how part three of this mystery might unfold. Someday.