Archives: A jumping-off point

Few locations in Central Alberta are photographed as frequently as the East Coulee bridge.

It serviced trains and vehicles crossing the Red Deer River and provided access and service to two mines. Both mines were left to rot when the coal-mining industry dried up but the Atlas has been turned into an historical site.

The bridge is made with impressive, strong wooden beams, although they’re rotting away and I fear the bridge’s days are numbered.

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From the archives: High River before the floods

Way way back in 2010, I was still playing slopitch.

I had, however, started to nurture my newer hobbies: photography and exploring. They were becoming more important to me than sitting at the Okotoks ball diamonds and drinking beer in between tournament games.
Maremma sheepdogAnd it’s when I started to develop a love for the smaller communities that surround the city of Calgary.

So, my heart sank upon hearing the entire town of High River had to be evacuated two weeks ago, thanks to the flood waters. Residents have been allowed to trickle back this week, some only to view the damage done to their homes.

The images I saw online and on my TV screen made me want to remember High River as it was — and as it will be again.

June 2010
One of the many murals that mark High River’s downtown:
Building mural

Museum of the Highwood, which is on the Canadian Register of Historic Places:
High River train station

Train bridge at the north end of town:

Grass growing near a train bridge

August 2010
Sheep River at Hogg Park:

Museum of the Highwood, after the fire of July 2010
burned out roof of old train station

Foot bridge at George Lane Memorial Park:
foot bridge over a creek

St. Benedict Anglican Church:
Anglican church

See the full photo album on the Facebook page for Our Great Escape.


One long day

My legs are shaking like a leaf.


Now that the 2.5-hour drive on a donut tire and through a blinding snowstorm is over.

A day spent ghost-towning — mostly fruitlessly — lasted three hours longer than it should have. When I jumped back onto the Trans-Canada Highway, exiting the former town known as Alderson, I heard a pop and felt my truck start to vibrate badly.

I turned down the stereo and heard the telltale ‘flub-flub-flub-flub-flub.’

Any number of expletives were whispered to the sky as I bashed the back of my head off the headrest.

And a recent conversation I had struck me.

“What do you mean you don’t have AMA? The way you drive around the country, there’s no way you shouldn’t have it.”

“Nothing ever happens to me.”

Famous last words. Or maybe I forgot to knock on wood.

Whatever happened, the luck of the Irish escaped me on St. Patrick’s Day.

I called my friend Belinda, wondering if she had any suggestions.

As brilliant as she is, she said call Alberta Motor Association, tell them your situation and ask them if they’ll sell you a membership over the phone.

Here’s the number.

Oh, and don’t forget to act pathetic.

Me? Pathetic? Act?

Pshaw. I was born to be on stage. I can cry on command.

Turns out, I didn’t even have to. This happens all the time, said Siobhan, my calm, cool and collected customer service specialist from AMA. She said she’d take my details, send the truck out and then pass me over to membership to sign me up for a year.

Easy peasy. Michelle from membership was equally as awesome.

And so I sat on the side of the road, 37 kilometres east of Brooks, waiting for my AMA guy to show up. He was there 45 minutes later and, inside of an hour, I was on my way home.

In the meantime, two fellas stopped to offer their assistance. I thanked them kindly and sent them on their way.

It’s just another day in the School of Hard Knocks.

But it is the kind of day that makes me appreciate my friends — the smart ones, the ones who worry about me, the ones who text me and make me smile through the rougher patches in life.

And the ones, like My American, who will talk to me while I sit on the side of the road.

(Um, I shouldn’t need to mention that he’s actually all of the above, too.)

It also makes me appreciate technology, because 15 years ago I might still be on the side of the highway. That was, of course, before I got my first cell phone.

None of this will stop me from ghost-towning in the future. Jumping in the truck with Shep and my cameras is the best way to spend a Saturday.

It sure as heck won’t make me any less fearless when I jump in the truck to head for a Spokane weekend next month.

After all, I have my smartphone to keep me in touch with everybody — from text to Twitter to Facebook and phone call.

And now I have AMA, too.

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More than a feeling

Yes, I drive around the country poking my head into and taking pictures of abandoned houses.

They have fascinated me since I was a kid. And I’ll never forget my first one. An old house stood next to Columbus Field where we had track and field training. It was probably my brother Kevin who hid behind a door, jumped out and yelled BAH, scaring the living crap out of me.

Then there was the old farmhouse on the Antigonish Landing. We’d jog out to Brown’s Mountain and explore the old dilapidated home. One of our coaches, Dave, pretended he was going to fall through the floor … and then he almost did.

Now I find myself in the Old West, where men mined the land for coal and tilled the field for crops.

The coal mines have been stripped dry and many of those crop fields now lie fallow, long since left behind by their residents.

Leaving me with a gold mine for my camera and my curiosity.

I wander the properties, turning the keys left in the ignition of old cars and trucks, wondering what I’d do if the engine ever turned over.

Poking my head into the houses, wondering why that table was left behind.

Touching the ovens tossed into the field, wondering why they couldn’t bake anymore pies.

I struggle to imagine what possessed a person or family to leave behind their homes. Did they simply drop everything and leave for a life of greater convenience in the big city? Were they forced out by foreclosures and the banks never found anyone to buy the property? Did they run away in the middle of the night, in fear of something?

It was cold on Sunday when we hit the road for the Badlands.

And when we spied an abandoned home from Highway 575 near Drumheller, I felt a weird chill. It was the kind of house that gave me shivers, not the least bit welcoming or warm.

I gingerly made my way around the property, always keeping an eye on the house. Its windows, the glass long since shattered away, and the door formed a large dark face of a gaping mouth and eyes.

It  was watching me with every step I took. Every press of the shutter release. Every breath.

I made my way around to the back of the house where Jack had found some rusty cans on the ground. He was bent over, trying to find the right angle, the right light.

I looked at the door. Though my guts were telling me to stay outside, I took a step into the house.

I felt a sudden chill.

The kind of chill that goes right into your bones. But there was no wind. Just a sudden drop in temperature.

I turned and went back outside.

Jack was standing by now, a confused look on his face. He said “that’s weird, my camera just adjusted to f95 on its own.”

Um … hey, Jack, there is no such thing as f95.

“I know.”

OK, waddaya say we get out of here?

We left.

I caught the house in the corner of my eye as we headed back to the highway. It gave me another chill.

I picked up my phone and launched my Dolphin browser. It seems to be extremely rare but other Nikon D300s owners have seen f95 in their EXIF data. Jack reset the camera and all was fine.

Was it merely a coincidence?

Was there a wind I didn’t notice?

Did the tiny little computer in Jack’s camera decide to shake things up on its own?

Or was it all more than a feeling?

Do you believe in ghosts?


There’s no place like Dorothy

“Dorothy is a hamlet in southern Alberta, Canada within Special Area No. 2. It is located approximately 21 kilometres (13 mi) east Highway 56 and 85 kilometres (53 mi) northwest of Brooks.”

That’s all you’ll read about Dorothy on its Wikipedia page.

Now make the two-hour trip from Calgary and stand in the short distance between the Catholic and United churches.

Listen to the wind whistle through the hills behind you.

Gaze at the vast blue sky above you.

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Rustic reality

There’s something so very quaint about Rowley, Alberta.

It’s the rustic charm that remains in this little ghost town 20 minutes north of Drumheller.

Some of the area residents work hard to keep the buildings standing and presentable and they want to do more.

They’d like to turn Rowley into a tourism destination, a place to go and learn about the history of Alberta, a place to spend money, a place to do more than camp and drink beer and eat pizza.

Here’s my selfish side: I like it just the way it is.

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Clearing my head

Sometimes, I just need to get away.

Sometimes, I just need to get out of the city and visit the mountains.

We have scenery like nowhere else in the world, just a 45-minute drive away. We don’t even have to go to Banff to grab a piece of heaven.

We need only head to Bragg Creek and slightly beyond to stand in the shadow of the breathtaking majesty of the Rockies.

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Let’s go to the hop

The scent of flame-broiling meat hits us from a block away.

“Mmmm, I smell barbecue,” I say to my copilot for a day of exploring on Alberta’s Cowboy Trail.

“It’s coming from up ahead,” he says, pointing in the direction of the smoke flooding out of one of the old Western-style facades on Centre Avenue in Black Diamond.

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Exploring in the city

There are so many reasons to love Calgary.

From its bustling urban attitude to its refusal to lose that small-town feel, the city didn’t take long to grow on me. In fact, I’d known I was born to live here since I was 14 and saw pictures of my brother’s exchange trip here.

It wasn’t until Shep came into my life, though, that I realized so much of what Calgary has to offer. Renowned as a pet-friendly city, it’s home to 138 off-leash dog parks and a large network of other pathed parks where we can roam on-leash.

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Big Valley keeps its history alive

The trains don’t clickety-clack into Big Valley anymore.

The chirping of the frogs is occasionally interrupted by the roar of Harleys, though … Harleys driven by touring bikers looking to wet their dusty dry whistles at the old saloon.

Big Valley went through every boon of the 20th century — ranching, rail, coal and oil.

And some families have stuck through every transition, never giving up on their little town just south of Stettler. Not like others in Scollard or Retlaw who packed up and left for new, more promising lives.

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