Strikes, mosquitos, blizzards and everything else not in my contract..
I love Canada, I really do. I considered moving there after my first extended trip there and decided not to bother after my second extended trip (during winter). Two things I learned about Canada, well Saskatchewan/Saskatoon in particular. Don’t come in summer if you get carpet bombed by mosquitos and don’t come in the winter if well, you have had enough cold and snow to last you a lifetime from your last trip. Here I was standing in Sasktoon in the Fall/Autumn after having read the tour dates and specifying coming out during the non frost bound part of it.
Up until now its been hectic, with the camel ride of a journey getting here and then pretty much on the road ever since.
I needed a quiet day, a calm day to myself and a bit of a detox. I thought Id head into town and just wander around in the fresh air, taking some photos, eating some light lunch and generally just taking in the place.
Except the busses were on strike, and I didn’t hire a car. Normally in most places that wouldn’t be an issue, get a lift in to town in the morning then a cab back, except this is North America and not on the usual tourist route and we were out in the suburbs. Everyone drives or takes the bus, so if you aren’t at the airport or the bus station or train station the hopes on getting a cab are somewhere between no and Bob. Of course I only worked that out when wandering around the town later in the day.
I got dropped off downtown and went for a wander. I hoped to stop off somewhere local and get a coffee and plan out my route but this early in the morning, other than the chains there were very few places open.
So much for the plan of eating light today, burger, root beer and fries for breakfast? OK.
I wandered around and that was exactly what I was doing, wandering, no plan, no shot list (Id revisit that later) and just breathing in the air. Sometimes that needs to be done, time to just function, to let the body sync with the camera, shoot what you see and spend time walking thinking the big thoughts and hoping that at some point some inspiration hits. The inspiration may not be for today, or tomorrow, it might be a light bulb moment a year from now or a facepalm moment for something that happened a year or two ago.
Todays both lightbulb and facepalm moment was recalling one of yesterdays conversations with the band leader where he mentioned he would be in town this afternoon and was also interested in photography. I texted him to see if he wanted to meet up and he said to meet him at the railway bridge….
…the railway bridge is a well known landmark and also a suicide spot. I was trying to remember if I had pissed him off at any point in the last 4 days, probably!
He also said to meet him in 15 minutes. I had no idea how long it would take me to get from where I was to there. Google maps had it as a very small distance on the map but there did seem an awful lot of streets between here and there.
Maybe I’ll just get a cab…
..New York City it aint!
Luckily enough I seemed to be coming from the same direction as he was so it looked like I was on time and I didn’t have to pretend to not be trying to run any more.
That’s when the lightbulb moment and facepalm come together, asking a local, asking questions and getting them to tell them some things you didn’t already know. This is why I love this part of Canada, its like most of Ireland, people take the time to have a conversation, people like telling their story and invariably they have a story to tell.
He told me about his university days, how he loved the old railway bridge, how he would stand and wait for a train to come along so he could walk across it at the same time.
Right lets go to the university, lets have coffee and a brownie at the university students cafe and lets chase trains on the railway bridge on the way there.
He didn’t mention that the railway bridge was high. That really goes without saying because if its a famous suicide spot its probably because its the highest point in town, no point jumping from somewhere if you are only going to twist your ankle.
Right now I’m climbing the stairs up to the bridge and they are that Eiffel tower type stair where its see through, see through all the way to the river and ground below. Did I mention I am afraid of heights, did I mention I’m now trailing him by about 10 metres and holding on to the handrail for grim death. I’m sure I missed some great photo opportunities climbing those stairs, I’m sure the view was breathtaking but I had enough difficulty holding on to my breath as it was. There could have been herds of bison running across the prairie valley below except I couldn’t hear anything above the blood pumping through my ears.
The view was great from the top, in face any tall high view in Saskatchewan that doesn’t feature boarding an aircraft is unusual. We waited around for a train to come for a bit, if it were back home on say the Derry bridge, the suicide squad would be over asking if you are ok. I should really say anti-suicide squad, there isn’t a team that helps you jump, quite the opposite and they do a great public service and don’t get enough praise.
If Id have planned this properly we would have arrived in time for one of the local train schedules. I think it was Abraham Lincoln who said something along the lines of if you give me six hours to cut down a tree, I will spend 4 hours sharpening my axe. I normally do this sort of prep for any of my shoots but today was just a free, wing it day.
We ended up wandering round the outskirts of the university complex with me pointing and asking ‘whats that’ and invariably getting detailed complete answer. I love guides like that, even if its not true, make some shit up and make it sound convincing. Whats that over there? Oh that’s the mermaids house? And whats that? Oh that’s the river dam to stop the mermaid swimming up the river and scaring tourists. OK that wasn’t a real conversation but it could have been, or should have been.
Its no more ridiculous than walking around the base of an old ski jump in the flattest landscape Ive ever been in. They needed somewhere to practise downhill skiing and ski jumping in a place where a pothole in the road would be classified as a black run. They built a jump and a slope on the banks of the river and it would only really work when the river was frozen during winter or it would be a very short and very wet jump.
After wandering round for a few hours as well as a pitstop in the cafe for this huge lump of a brownie thing that didn’t come close to being healthy it was time for lunch. We wandered up to Broadway and stopped off in this noodle place for some of the best noodles Ive had outside of China. It was also big enough to choke a horse.
After lunch it was time to part ways and decide how the hell I was going to get back home. I came up with the great plan of just walking along 8th street until my legs got sore and I would just flag down a cab. 7 miles later I was home not having seen a single bloody cab the entire way back. So much for a day of rest.
3 days later it was up at stupid o’clock again for another 4 hour or so drive to a wee town called Assiniboia. Somehow on the walk around Saskatoon Id managed to pick up a couple of insect bites on my arms and wouldn’t you believe it they were just in the position to rub against the arm rests in the minibus. I say insect bites and although my merry band of travelling companions tried to assure me they weren’t mosquito bites, I’m damn sure they were. I’m sure they heard I was coming and lay in wait for me. The Assiniboia concert was a fairly big event in a well organised theatre so there was little for me to do during the loadout and sound checks so I thought Id go out for a wander around the town for some background photos. The temperature had dropped from borderline shorts weather to in and around zero degrees but as long as it didn’t snow it would be ok. At the furthest point in my wander I had reached the edge of town and got a full 360 degree flat view of the surrounding countryside and a centre stage view of the approaching snowstorm. Now Id heard all the jokes and stories about Saskatchewan and not needing a weather forecast as you can see it coming for 3 days but I thought it would be a lot sooner than that before the wind and snow hit me.
I almost made it back to the theatre in time but the blizzard conditions caught me out in the open. You know you are in trouble when you have to use google maps and gps to get you back to the venue as you cant see the streets in front of you. Not exactly a white out but not far off. I got in just as the band were eating and every single one of them looked up at me and laughed. I was in full theatre blacks but probably looked mostly white and wet at that stage. Of course Canadians being a polite race of people, that was the end of it, but no the other Belfast man in the group chimed up with ‘Is it snowing?’. Some of the rest of the band then were about to say ‘yes, sure look at Joe covered in the stuff’ but were introduced to the Irish concept of sarcasm pretty quickly.
Dinner was homemade lasagne which was amazing. At most of the venues the local arts council supply the food for the band and its invariably some sort of home cooked meal, which after the blizzard and cold was very welcome. Did I say I loved Canada and Canadians already?
There was also a beautiful dessert but I made the fatal mistake of ‘leaving a bit’ to go back to after Id checked for light levels and made sure my 3g connection was ok for sending in the photos at half time. With 9 other guys around, even the massive carrot cake took a demolishing but its my own fault for abandoning my post. Lesson learned!
On the long road back after the gig I arranged to meet the band leader again in the morning to go for a drive for an hour or two north of Saskatoon. No rest for the wicked but I think they all felt sorry for my tales of bus strikes and long walks in the city.
Another earlyish start and we decided to head off up to Redberry Lake and take a look at the crooked trees. Redberry lake is a salt water lake in the middle of Canada so was an interesting place to visit. We were deep in the heart of Ukrainian Canada, even the road signs were up in Cyrillic and English. I think Id better explain the crooked trees thing. It sounds a bit like something out of Father Ted, ‘oh come and see the crooked trees’. Aren’t all trees crooked to one extend or another? Suspending my normal sarcastic approach I decided to go with the flow and see if it really was worth the journey out. In a province with such a flat terrain any land feature might be raised to almost mythical tourist status. One of the other ‘sights’ we were going to see was called ‘the big tree’, apparently a really big tree just out there itself on the prairie. Whatever floats your boat really.
To be fair, a fair few people thought I might be wasting my time going to see a bunch of crooked trees in the middle of nowhere on a gravel road having seen a lot of the world and some of the places Ive already seen. Honestly though I have never seen anything like the crooked trees in my life. Granted its not the Grand Canyon or Iguazu Falls but one of the weirdest things Ive ever seen. It seems obvious to state but the crooked trees were indeed, crooked, crooked from the base up but a few metres away the rest of the Aspen tree grove grow normally straight up. Its at this stage that we veer into Fr Ted territory with the nearest gas station having a printout leaflet on the trees giving various reasons and myths about their existence, from fairys to aliens to magnetic anomalies. I prefer the alien landing craft area explanation myself.
We stopped off on the way back in a small town cafe for perogies and cabbage rolls. Despite all the times visiting Saskatchewan this was the first time I got to taste this traditional canadian/ukrainian meal. Very filling and you could tell why it was a farm favourite. Of course now I knew what I was looking for I realised I can get both in my local supermarket back at home, but there you go!
On the way back the harvesting was in full swing so I thought Id stop by the side of the road and get a few photos. It was a long drive back and I was probably going to hit rush hour and on a Friday as well. I got out of the car as the combines got closer and there were three of them working in sync on the field. The sun was setting so was backlighting the clouds of dust being thrown up behind them. I just needed to wait until one passed and I would get the others in a nice cloud of dust. Behind me the car horn was beeping, then my mate jumped into the drivers seat and started revving the engine. The dust was getting thicker so I just put my shirt up over my mouth, I mean come on no need to panic, Ive been in dust storms in the Sahara you know…
…the first signs that I really should panic was the sound of rather large objects bouncing off the car roof, then bonnet then bouncing off my head. Who knew that combine harvesters thrown great lumps of earth up into the air as well as dust and chaff. Well obviously everyone around here, hence the horn tooting and engine revving.
I scrambled back into the car, dusted myself off and mentioned something about every day being a schoolday.
Today’s lesson wasn’t over either as I had a good lesson in driving in rush hour traffic on a Friday afternoon in a city with roadworks and a bus strike.
Still, tomorrow we would be on the road again on the longest road trip of my leg of the tour, minimum 5-6 hours. It was also going to be the biggest event of my leg of the tour, in a place Id been to before but in a just newly built venue. I think we were the first people to play it.