Saturday Shopping

We have an ongoing dispute in our home regarding who should be responsible for weekend errands. Those with Y chromosomes in the under-65 inches category believe it should be my job, so as not to interfere with their preference for spending large swaths of time floating from couch, to bed, to dining table on any days that start with ‘S’.

Saturday, being an ‘S’ day, and coinciding with the continuous fact that we seemed to be out of a multitude of essentials, I determined that I would attend to my lengthy list of errands alone, without having to endure complaints about the number of places I choose to visit, or the length of time I choose to spend in aforementioned places.

But then the professor offered to join me at the last minute; a token of semi-goodwill, ostensibly. Though it may have been offered with the distinct hope of being rebuffed. Instead he found himself sitting in the passenger seat of the van, barreling down ice-rutted roads while inhaling through bared teeth, muttering things like ‘I’m going to die.’ Headed for the bane of all Johnson-men’s existence: Community Natural.

It being St. Patrick’s Day, a cheerful store employee was offering samples of undoubtedly health-ified ‘Shamrock Shakes’ in compostable mini-cups. I grabbed one knowing full well it would not bear much of a resemblance to its thick green chemical-cousin from the Golden Arches. But I was not entirely prepared for a green juice anointed with mint oil and cocoa nibs, and a drop of almond milk. The professor made various sputtering, unhappy noises and hightailed it to the nearest garbage collector.

‘Do you notice no one is smiling in this place,’ he mused aloud. ‘This is my impression of everyone in this place,’ and he generated a facial expression akin to one who has drunk nothing but parsley juice for three days straight. ‘It’s a grocery store,’ I disagreed, ‘no one looks happy at the grocery store.’


I parked myself in front of the bulk bins to gather oats and lentils while he wandered off, like an unsupervised school child heading for mischief. In the form of a Cole & Mason fresh herb keeper. 

‘Don’t you think we need one of these?’ he reappeared,  cradling a box in his arms as though he’d located the cure for something. ‘No.’ ‘But I just threw away some sort of green – cilantro, parsley – that was trapped in the salad spinner for like three days.’ ‘You could have thrown it in the freezer [with the constantly expanding collection of chicken carcasses destined for broth.]’

Denied, he returned his prized would-be possession and joined me at the bulk bins. ‘Don’t you ever just want to push down all the dispensers and run out?’ ‘No.’ ‘But let’s say you were diagnosed with a terminal illness, would you do it then?’ ‘No.’ ‘Well, I’m just saying if a doctor tells me I have a month to live or whatever, I am definitely doing that; I have a whole list of things I’d do.’

I frowned, mildly horrified at the prospect of certain public humiliation in my future. ‘Don’t worry,’ he assured me, ‘I will rent a car.’

I hurried away to the produce section, eager to expedite….whatever this was. He found me in front of the kale, contemplating whether to buy curly or lacinato. Or both. ‘Why not just put a toonie in the refrigerator instead,’ he proposed with a hint of judgment at my habit of letting vegetables languish. I crammed one of each into a plastic bag, made a mental note to EAT KALE and continued on to look for baking soda. While regaled with tales of a recent podcast about a mental institution and the merits of animal fats over vegetable fats.

‘Do you think I could pass for 65,’ the professor asked, pointing to the sign posted near the cash register about people over 65 being eligible for a wisdom discount. ‘Go for it,’ I encouraged, while silently berating myself for choosing the slowest line. I glanced at the couple standing behind us, dressed in the requisite ‘Community Shopper’ uniform sported by people of a certain age and political bent: olive green hiking pants, fleece vest and water-resistant boots. They also bore the requisite ‘parsley juice’ expression on their faces. Possibly due to the fact that they’ve eaten nothing but apples and hemp seeds for the last fifteen years, judging from their shopping basket.

‘How’s your day going,’ the cashier asked when it was finally my turn to check out. ‘Well, I’m shopping with my husband,’ I motioned with my head, to the man who had wandered off to check out the juicers on display. ‘Ah,’ she said, in a say-no-more manner. ‘He was wondering if he could pass for 65, so he could get the wisdom discount,’ she looked at him and shook her head. Dream deferred.





Saturday: The Art of Not Being in Three Places at Once

(A continuation of the previous tale, The Blur: Oh is it Halloween, I forgot to care)

After three days of not thinking about how to be in three places at once on Saturday, Friday night arrived and I realized my logistical nightmare could no longer be ignored.

I had a small foretaste of the following day’s delights as I loaded four boy-children in the van, and spent the better part of an hour and forty five minutes driving back and forth between two schools and two different basketball practices.

It had been snowing since the day before, and even though we’ve lived here for nine years, we still haven’t come around to the Calgarian way that is buying a separate set of tires for the winter months. I always forget when it’s September and the roads are clear how stressful and lifespan reducing it is, driving in snow and wondering if your car is going to make it around a particular corner or up a hill. How it might, in fact, be worth $1000 or however much it costs to acquire tires with more adequate tread.

But alas another November without snow tires is upon me.

At practice I, emboldened out of necessity, approached one of the Hen’s coaches, who also has three boys…in basketball…to see what mutually beneficial child-trading deal we might strike for Super Saturday. I should point out that I had never spoken to this particular coach, yet there I was, begging him for a ride.

Desperate times call for desperate measures.

He offered to drive the Hen to his game (located one-hour-in-the-opposite-direction from the Gort’s game) but due to his own scheduling conflicts could not bring the Hen home. Which means I had to ask the other coach to bring the Hen home. In return, I offered to supervise a kid I’d never met for half an hour and drive him to his basketball practice which was at the same gym as Percy’s….but an hour later.

The Hen’s first driver also wanted to leave exceptionally early, due to the inclement weather, which meant I had to leave the Gort’s game before it was over…..without the Gort. Obviously. Having no prior knowledge of any of the Gort’s teammates or their parents, I had to survey the sample of available parents and boldly ask someone I only knew as ‘Tristyn’s mom’ to drive my firstborn home.

I remember when he was a baby and I made detailed lists for babysitters regarding his food and sleep schedule, how annoyingly particular I was, and here I was begging a complete stranger to drive my son across town.

I did try to sniff the air circumspectly to see if her breath smelled of alcohol, but did she have a driver’s license? Was she a responsible driver? Had she been imprisoned for anything?

I will never know.

With two kids taken care of, I still needed to find Percy a ride home from his practice so I could drive across town to ‘The Costco’ to deal with my ‘slow leak’ tire. Fortunately, I managed to pawn off my third-born on his coach, whom I know and have talked to at least three times.

‘How are you Nicola,’ one of the moms sitting on the tiny wooden benches against the gym wall asked when I sat down with my ‘fourth’ (stranger) child. A yellow basketball came barreling down towards my head as I tried to gather my thoughts. Fortunately another mom alerted me to my imminent head injury with a panicked ‘Whaaaah’ and I slapped the ball away, inelegantly.

‘Well, I’m a bit frazzled,’ I replied. Though I suspect the harried look on my face, and my general unkempt appearance, magnified by the fact that I was wearing two coats had already corroborated as much.

I explained about my Super Saturday logistics and she shuddered sympathetically. ‘I think in San Francisco they’re piloting an Uber-type initiative that’s just for getting kids where they need to be. I’m not sure I’d use it though.’

I thought of Tristyn’s mom. ‘Well, I just asked a complete stranger to drive my child home, so that couldn’t be any worse.’

‘True, the drivers are probably vetted somehow.’

Hopefully more vetted than my ‘sniff the air’ test.

The Hen’s ‘first driver’ arrived at the gym, and with my temporary charge reunited with his father, I hightailed it to Costco for my 12:15 ‘appointment’. I have a rather old-fashioned view of appointments as it turns out, one shaped by years of medical, dental and professional appointments that were set for a specific time and, as such, expected to commence on, or very close to that specific time.

My first inkling that a Costco ‘appointment’ was not, in fact, an appointment, was the line-up of cars parked outside the Tire Center, in the fire lane. My second inkling was the line of people snaking out the door into the concrete-floored entryway: people with appointments, people who’d driven in snow, remembered how awful it was and raced to buy snow tires, people reporting for the 40 kilometer, post-tire installation torque check.  My third was the customer service representative with the blunt bangs and brisk manner of speech saying ‘it should be about two hours.’

I hadn’t planned on spending two hours at Costco. I didn’t really have two hours to spend at Costco. I was starving, thirsty and the only thing I needed to buy was dishwasher pellets.

I returned a few shirts I’d bought against my better judgment. That killed 15 minutes. I went to the restroom which killed perhaps two minutes while eviscerating my self-esteem. Whenever I visit the Costco restroom, I inevitably gasp in horror as I glance in the mirror on my way to the stalls. I don’t know if it’s the fluorescent lighting, the grey tinge of the concrete, or perhaps I just look my most unattractive when I go to Costco, but the person I’m looking at in the mirror is about 57 years old and possibly the ugliest person on the planet.

Just once, and I realize I’m fighting an uphill battle at this stage of the game, I’d like to take a glance in the Costco mirrors and feel okay about myself.  Not great, mind you, just ‘not bad’.

I entered the warehouse, ready to avail myself to whatever samples they were offering and wouldn’t you know it, on this particular Saturday at 12:30 there were almost no samples to be had. Just an obscenely thick hunk of cheddar on a Wisecracker. Which I ate, because I was that hungry.

I considered buying a duty-free-shop sized bar of Toblerone but didn’t think walking around, gnawing on a giant slab of triangular chocolate would help my ‘look better at Costco’ goal. I stared at the menu items on offer in the food court: pizza, hot dog, polish dog, sandwich, chicken strips, french fries, chicken caesar salad.

What was the lesser of all evils in this situation? I bought the french fries, ate a quarter and threw the rest away.

At the two hour mark, having purchased 132 dishwasher pellets, I made my way to the tire center, figuring my keys would be back in my hand within minutes.

My first inkling that this was not going to be the case was when I saw the line of people snaking out the door into the concrete-floored entryway. My second inkling was when the same blunt-banged, crisp-voiced customer service representative told someone in line ‘it will be 2-3 hours.’

She’d conveniently left off the ‘3’ when it was my turn.

I sat on the bench in the tire center, with nothing but my box of dishwasher pellets and a low-battery, data-less phone to keep me company. That and the rhythmic bench-kicking of the two kids sitting beside me, waiting for their dad.  Tunk-tunk-tunk-tunk. Over and over and over while I festered in my personal hell.

Two hours and forty-five minutes after I arrived for my ‘appointment’ I was summoned by the blunt-banged, crisp-voiced lady. ”Thanks for your patience,’ she chirped as she handed me my keys.








On Being Dumber than a Fourth Grader

An email appeared in my disregarded inbox. The boys’ school wanted to thank parent volunteers for offering their time during the school year by giving them tea and coffee and having them sit in a gym for an hour. I mentally reviewed the contribution I’d made over the course of the year to either boy’s schooling, which amounted to notmuch, and went about my business.

Basically, I was not worthy of attending a volunteer tea. Or so I thought.

Around the same time, I started seeing emails from the Hen’s teachers about ‘Caine’s Arcade’. (Do you know about the 9 year old’s cardboard arcade that inspired the world?!)

‘Are you going to volunteer for Caine’s Arcade?’ the Hen asked me as we were walking home from school, ‘you need to sign up!’ ‘Sure,’ I replied, the same vague, dismissive ‘sure’ I offer anytime a decision is not immediately required.

I hadn’t really considered what volunteering for the arcade would entail – I assumed it was supervisory in nature; an attempt to manage 400 plus kids traipsing through a gym filled with cardboard games created by children of varying skill and attention to detail. And then the SOS email appeared: ‘we need parents to help kids put together their games and we don’t have anyone signed up for tomorrow!’

Having assisted the professor a time or twenty during our college years, cutting architectural models out of cardboard with one half-open eye fixed upon the clock and the hours-away deadline he needed to meet, I am well aware of my weakness in the area of cardboard cutting. The twenty-plus years since have not allowed me to forget the feel of an x-acto knife slicing an errant diagonal line when ‘straight, down’ was required.

Nor the professor’s face as he mentally weighed the cost of having terrible, unskilled assistance or no assistance at all. As well as coming to grips with the fact that he was signing up for a life-time with a woman who could not cut a straight line, when capable, skilled women were scattered all around his studio carefully crafting their own designs.

Obviously, given my skill-set and preferences, I replied to the SOS email with a ‘sure, I can be there tomorrow from 12:30-2:30.’ Because I hadn’t volunteered at all. And the Hen had asked. And surely I wasn’t less skilled than a fourth grader.

‘You are the best!’ the teacher replied immediately to my sacrificial offering. ‘Best’ might have been an overstatement for someone who had not darkened the door of the classroom, save the ten-minute parent teacher conference.

Just past noon, the next day, I walked into the school and was somewhat surprised to find they had not incinerated my volunteer badge, though it was, conspicuously, at the very back of the ‘J’ section. I entered the Hen’s classroom, into the chaos that is twentysome 9 and 10 year-olds attacking flattened cardboard boxes with scissors and box cutters, feeling my 120 minutes of service lengthening with every step. I surveyed the progress, stopping here and there to see what students were creating. ‘I made a fulcrum,’ one precocious student announced. Had she not gestured in the direction of said fulcrum, I would have had no idea what she was talking about because, apparently, I am less skilled than a fourth grader. Or, at the very least, dumber.

A fulcrum?

Neverheardofit. OrifIdidIforgot.

There were some glorious years in my late teens and early twenties when I felt exceedingly intelligent and generally marveled at my smartitude. Or, more accurately, I was not so keenly aware of how much I did not know. Sure, there were obvious deficiencies, mostly in that subject called science but nothing a solid memory of the contents of the periodic table and whispers of knowledge regarding rudimentary genetics couldn’t mask. And if discussing eye color or recalling that Pb was LEAD didn’t do the trick, I could always rely on my knowledge of the times table as a distraction technique. (Only up to 12×12.)

But, twentysome years past the glorious naivete of my youth, I frequently find myself relying on a technique tested in many a classroom setting when I had no idea what the teacher was talking about: nod attentively as though pierced, to the core, by whatever they were saying. Followed by fervent, pretend, note-taking. Or, in these non note-taking days, extricating myself from the situation tout de suite. Thus, I nodded attentively about the fulcrum, and walked away.

In the middle of the class stood a blue-eyed child (who happens to have two brown-eyed parents) with a troubled look upon his face. The rest of his classmates were tearing into cardboard with, sometimes, frightening results, cutting holes and creating walls with tape – devil may care about the outcome. But the boy appeared paralyzed by the reality of translating the vague idea in his head into something that might approximate a game kids could play. And, ideally, a game that would not suck.

Clearly the child, my child, needed help. From the parent volunteer who’d signed up to offer help. Every project and assignment I’d ever had to do but were clueless about flashed before my eyes and my first, second and third instinct was to say to the Hen: ‘let’s take all this stuff home and have dad figure this out.’ Or his older brother, who ended up making a Caine’s Arcade game ‘just for fun.’ (Possibly to twist the brotherly knife a la Vernon God Little.)

But alas, us two, like-minded erratophobes* were stuck with each other. On a stage of sorts, with twentysome pairs of eyes and ears keenly interested in how this ‘situation’ would resolve itself.

All I can really say, about the 300 minutes I ended up volunteering for Caine’s Arcade, is that I observed one distinct difference between the Hen and his classmates on this particular occasion. The difference had nothing to do with intellect or skill; the difference was simply a willingness to go for it. A willingness to cut a terrible-looking hole and either live with it or pick out another piece of cardboard and try again. A willingness to make a fulcrum and put a piece of cardboard across it and call it a catapult**.

‘Just make a mark and see where it takes you,’ the sage words from Peter Reynolds’ ‘The Dot’ popped into my head. Almost as if I’d read the book eighteen times.

That night, the Gort handed me his 7th grade algebra homework. ‘I know the answer, but I don’t know how to explain it.’ I resisted the urge to say ‘how is that even a problem’ and devoted my dwindling energy to staring at the words on the page. It was a substantial boost to my ego when I realized I could still kill 7th grade math.


*Yes, I just Googled ‘what is fear of creating’ and found only ‘fear of making mistakes’ which is basically the same thing.

**I experienced the tiniest twinge of redemption when I, fortysomething, non-science school volunteer, was able to help fulcrum-girl figure out why her catapult was not working as well as she needed it to work.








The White Board

I picked Percy up from school yesterday and he handed me a de rigueur ‘Mother’s Day is Sunday’ confection carved out of bright yellow and red cardstock.

‘It’s a boat! With sails!’ I exclaimed, gazing at the red trapezoidal shape and the two yellow hand-shaped cut outs serving as sails. ‘No, it’s a flower pot,’ he protested, ‘the hands are flowers.’

If by ‘flower pot’ you mean bonsai tray.

Each flower-slash-flag contained a reason why he loves me.

I love you because you make my lunch.

I love you because you take me to baseball.

It’s not my first rodeo with this school-issued mother’s day card business, and I realize I shouldn’t read too, too much into the messages they contain, yet I couldn’t help but feel these were exceedingly perfunctory tasks he supposedly loved me for.

Ones that could be easily done by, say, a hired taxi driver. Or maybe a really nice neighbor.

Could he not have, at least, mentioned the (almost) nightly Harry Potter readings?

The truth of the matter is, things do feel perfunctory around here in a way they haven’t in previous years. For various reasons, none of which is interesting enough to mention, our calendar has morphed in appearance from something vaguely respectable (we are not sitting around watching Netflix for hours…every day) to something akin to Rosemary’s Baby (we eat in our cars! we have to be in three places at the same time! we need to use more exclamation marks!!)

In an effort to keep everyone informed about the day’s happenings, without resorting to handing out devices with synched calendars – which I’d probably need the 13 year old to manage anyway – I have turned to the exceedingly low tech: white dry erase board.

I actually didn’t have the wherewithal to come up with this idea on my own. I was using pieces of paper! Cut from the IKEA Malo roll shoved into my craft cupboard! Until someone walked past my wasteful relic, pointed at the dry erase board in my kitchen and said: ‘you could just use that.’


Despite its tenuous [dry…erase] nature, I use the board to record who needs to be where at what time, as well as the boys’ daily responsibilities (piano! baritone! tidy rooms!), the things I need to pick up at the store when I make my almost-daily trips (mustard! floss!) or the amount of cash I’ve borrowed from their piggy banks when pressed to cough up, say, $20 at 7:30am for a fieldtrip. (Who am I kidding – fieldtrips don’t cost $20 anymore.)

I have turned into the person who borrows money from her children. I have turned into the person who uses a dry erase board to communicate with her family.

‘Do I have a game tonight? ‘Look at the board!’ ‘What time are you leaving?’ ‘Look at the board!’

I love you because you put my schedule on the white board.

Despite its impersonal nature, I like to think ‘the white board’ has drastically reduced the amount of times I have to ask and re-ask the boys to do something. ‘Drastically reduced’ not ‘eliminated’.  It has also increased the number of time-related phone calls I get. ‘Where are you? You said you were going to pick me up at 5:50 but it’s 5:50 now and you’re not here!’

Sorry, I should have written 5:53.

The three musketeers, despite their differences are remarkably similar in their appreciation of numbers, especially as they relate to the clock.

In addition to the white board, I have also had to change my approach to meals. Most weeks (if I can find a couple of hours at the start of the week) my strategy is making a lot of food and putting it in the fridge for whomever, whenever, wherever.

Sometimes, like this week, it means having a few options at the ready: polenta, sausage and ratatouille, chicken, and ham, mushroom, spinach tart. Other times, like last week, it meant having chicken, rice, black beans three days in a row.

I love you because you feed me quesadillas every single night.

It’s a season, as everyone likes to say. One which feels every bit as blurry as the toddler years. Except the toddlers don’t go to bed at 7pm anymore. And my eyes refuse to stay open past 10:30pm.





Hello, again

The phone rang, right before Christmas, or maybe it was shortly after. The number displayed on Caller ID did not appear to be an obvious telemarketing ploy, so I picked up. ‘Hello,’ a recorded voice greeted me. And, the specifics elude me now, but the gist was this: WordPress was calling to remind me I had a blog. Not because they missed my writing – naturally, they wanted money. But it made me chuckle nonetheless.

Of course my mother had taken to reminding me occasionally that I hadn’t blogged for some time, but a phone call? From WordPress?

It was precisely the motivating factor I needed to rush to the computer six weeks later, and offer up my credit card details. Thus, having spent $47.88 for the privilege of Idontknowwhat here I am.

And really, all I can offer by way of explanation for my unintentional hiatus, and as insight into my nearly constant state of mind: parenting. Or, ‘why did nobody tell me this was how it would be.’

Perhaps you are a mother (no implication of gender here) with young children and you’re thinking to yourself ‘I just need to hang on until the last kid is in school, then it will be easy street!’

And that’s fine if that’s what is getting you through days of having to wipe butts and eat chocolate behind closed doors. But it is a complete and total fabrication lie and though, if I told you this to your face you would probably think ‘oh that’s just you, my kids are different,’ I will go ahead and post it to the interwebs so I can feel like I at least tried to warn you.

These in-school, butt-wiping children are a thing of beauty, make no mistake. Like a few nights ago, I was cutting up not-so-young Percy’s food for some reason and it reminded me that it had been an extremely long time since I cut up people’s food. Or changed a diaper. Or fought with someone about getting into a carseat. Or spent fifteen minutes getting someone dressed so they could go outside and play in the snow only to come back five minutes later because they were too cold.

I also have not hired a babysitter in recent memory, because the Gort is nearly 13 and can semi-manage his younger brothers for a couple of hours as long as I’m willing to field at least 3 phone calls – one from each boy expressing his unhappiness with the management or the entertainment or the lack of food or the subordinates.

But these perks don’t come for free. Unfortunately. ‘Big kids, big problems’ you might have heard the saying from people with children past the preschool stage. Which I’ve basically taken to mean: when the boys were little it felt like my main job was to keep them alive. But as they get older there is an undeniable realization that I am dealing with adults-in-training and maybe it’s amusing that they hide oranges in their dresser drawers, but could this be a sign of bigger problems afoot?

Will whatever issue we are dealing with today result in their incarceration or drug addiction down the line? (If I had one of those embedded tweet icons I could put it here so you could conveniently tweet this faux deep thought.)

Not really.

But kind of.

Of course I don’t (necessarily) think my children hiding oranges in their dresser drawers will result in their eventual incarceration, but I am unable to use more egregious examples to better illustrate my point. Another downside of raising bigger kids – you can no longer speak as candidly as you once did.

Whereas it was once amusing, even expected, to regale your friends and family with outlandish toddler tales, talking about your ‘older’ kids is akin to stepping into a field laden with hidden landmines. Privacy! Others’ opinions of them! Having to hear about it when they’re 25 and in therapy ‘because of you’.

Thus this stretch of parenting has turned out to be unexpectedly isolating, especially when compounded by the calendrical reality of suddenly spending weeknights and weekends shuttling children to activities and cheering them on at sports events. These days, the majority of my socializing is done from the inside of my van, waving (really, just nodding) at a friend going the opposite direction in her minivan.

But it’s not all doom and gloom chez Johnson. We are doing our best to retain our senses of humor amidst the hormonal upheaval of adolescence and the omnipresent three-boy drama that threatens to undo us. I was chatting with the Gort before bed a couple of nights ago, trying to the greatest mom who ever lived, inspiring him with my Tami Taylor-esque wisdom. He seemed neither irritated (praise hands) nor particularly impressed. ‘You don’t seem inspired by this,’ I remarked, ‘I am sharing all this wisdom with you, I am literally barfing wisdom all over you here, and you’re just lying there, uninspired.’

I couldn’t help but think the term ‘barfing wisdom’ was perhaps not one being used by the majority of mothers out there.

These are the words that will come back to haunt me at Thanksgiving 2029.

PS. Did you know, mother-of-small-people, that ‘older children’ don’t go to bed at 7:00pm? Or 8, or even 9 on most nights? Those precious quiet hours you are enjoying after the kids go to bed? To read, or watch Netflix, write blogs about your kids or go out with your similarly stationed friends? ‘Say goodbye to these!’

Hellobonjour, le troisieme time is le charm

The professor and I took a few moments at the White Wolf Inn to tweak our itinerary for the following day, using the lessons we’d gleaned from failed hikes number 1 and 2: less distance and elevation and perhaps something besides hiking and driving. For the kids.

Our first stop on day 3 was the Miette Hot Springs where we arrived right at opening time. Sitting in hot water , staring at strangers wearing bathing suits is not really my idea of a good time, but this fell under the ‘for the kids’ category. The professor decided to be amusing and rented one of the old-fashioned one-piece bathing suits on offer. Though I left my camera in the car, I may or may not have posted evidence on instagram of my better half sporting a blue onesie.

After raising our internal temperatures a few degrees, we headed to the next stop of the day: Jasper Lake. Basically, a large body of ice cold ankle deep water right off the highway. Again, pour les enfants. DSC_0492

For the day’s hike we had selected Maligne Canyon, which has the dubious honor of being considered ‘the most interesting canyon in the Canadian Rockies’. A mere 7km in distance, with minimal elevation gain, we had every expectation that the third [hike] would be the charm.

We pulled into the Sixth Bridge parking lot, crossed our fingers and away we went. It was perhaps less ‘hike’ and more ‘scenic walk’, especially since it turns into a full on tourist trap by the time you get to the third bridge. Most likely because you can skip all that hiking business and drive straight to the first bridge to walk around on paved trails with less than minimal exertion.


Perhaps that makes it sound like I’m frowning upon people who choose to eschew all the drama adventurous preamble in favor of door to door service. Which, of course, I am. But, in defense of tourist traps, they do make for the best people watching, offering a welcome respite from one’s own travelling-family dynamics.

[Scene: Middle-aged father walking with two tween-aged girls. The eldest is wearing jeans and a black leather jacket and obviously suffering as a result, on this warm, end-of-July day.]

‘Why don’t you just tie the jacket around your waist like you did yesterday,’ the father suggests to his sweltering daughter.

‘Do you have any idea how ridiculous that would look?! Who ties a leather jacket around their waist?!’

‘Well, I don’t know many people who wear a leather jacket to go hiking.’

‘I didn’t know this was what we were going to be doing. I was not well informed!’

The exchange had me laughing to the point of tears, and wishing I could walk behind them for a few more minutes, if only to be reminded that I’m not alone. Because I am traveling with a 12 year old boy and his two tweens-in-training younger brothers. Our conversations may not revolve around wardrobe choices, but nobody asked to come on this trip and this is the worst day of my life and I just want to go home.


Despite the abbreviated nature and ease of our excursion, we did not avoid the seemingly inescapable boy breakdowns. Luckily there was a visitor centre with a ‘tea house’ and luckily, having learned a thing or two about the importance of carrying cash in remote settings, I had enough funds to purchase something edible for all involved.

Let it not be said that I don’t learn my lessons….eventually.

While sitting on the terrace at the tea house consuming our lunch, dark clouds had filled the sky, signalling imminent precipitation. The professor, who is in charge of maps and trails (a slight step above Phoebe’s cups and ice) when we hike, had identified a shortcut that bypassed all the bridges and the tourists. It was a delightful, virtually deserted trail and since we were ‘going back’ the boys didn’t even care that they were getting pelted with rain.

Johnsons 1-Nature 2


For as long as I’ve been thinking about visiting Jasper, Maligne Lake/Spirit Island has been at the top of my list of ‘must-see’ Jasper destinations. But here’s the thing about traveling with kids, sometimes you have to relinquish your dreams for the greater good. (*Cough* Delicate Arch *cough*.) The drive to Maligne Lake would have taken two hours return and though the boys had tolerated the canyon business fairly well, they were certainly not chomping at the bit for more. And it was almost 5pm (I think).

Thus we headed to our resting place for the evening – an Otentik in Whistler’s Campground – while I tried to swallow my sadness. ‘You need to be flexible,’ I’d explained to one of my boy-children the previous day, when he’d complained about having to do things he didn’t want to do. And, as usually happens when I try to impart wisdom, I end up having to listen to my own advice.

When we arrived at the highway turnoff to the campground, there was a line-up of vehicles trying to do the same. There was also a line-up in the opposite directions of cars stopped to look at yet another bear. Eventually we made it to the campground entrance with its full/complet warnings to any of those silly enough to dare to show up in a national park on a long weekend without a reservation.

A Dutch woman drove up in a Canadream rental camper and spoke to the hellobonjour agent in the booth. ‘I need a campsite.’ ‘Do you have a reservation?’ ‘No, but I want to stay for two nights,’ she added, loudly, as if that would entice the agent to rustle up a free campsite.

They sent her to ‘overflow’ which I imagine to be a field filled to the brim with reservationless campers and no bathroom facilities.

We drove into the tree-filled campground, found our Otentik and began the process of unloading and setting up and cooking ‘dinner’. While shopping at the Camper’s Village in Calgary for bear spray, the Gort had talked me into buying a $12 freeze-dried ‘italian chicken and pasta’ dinner. My first response was ‘no, it will taste terrible.’ Because I knew it would. But sometimes, as a parent, you need to say yes, so they can learn these things for themselves.

I’d also surveyed the boys for camping food preferences before we left. ‘Pizza sandwiches!’ the Gort had yelled, ‘I love those.’ Two years had apparently improved his memory of the improvised ‘grilled cheese with a thin layer of homemade tomato sauce’ sandwiches I’d made during the Summer of 2014, aka ‘The Summer we Spent Two Nights in a Tent Trailer.’

So I made the ‘beloved’ pizza sandwiches, while the Gort made his much-anticipated Italian pasta and never was there a more disappointing dinner for all involved. I consumed approximately three large smores to help ease the pain, played another round of argument-inducing Anomia and called it a night.



Hellobonjour, part deux

After a less than stellar night’s sleep in the trapper’s tent, the professor and I awoke to three truths:

  1. We were very tired
  2. Our backs were somewhat destroyed from the tent’s ‘bed-like structures’
  3. We had been married for 20 years

It was not necessarily my intention to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of our wedding day by eating oatmeal out of a packet and drinking questionable coffee but when all of Parks Canada is complet, you do what you have to do. As luck would have it, the particular type of chia-oatmeal I’d purchased was of the unsweetened variety. Or so I deduced when my mom mentioned it tasted somewhat disgusting and I glanced at the paper envelope and saw the ‘sweeten to taste’ instruction.

But fortunately, I’d brought a just-in-case jar of apricot jam which, when stirred into gross oatmeal along with some blueberries and banana renders it practically palatable. It was the first time that jar of jam would come to my rescue, though it would not be the last.

After rolling up sleeping bags with slightly dire results (seriously, does it require special genes, techniques) and cleaning and packing and loading for what felt like hours, we headed to Jasper. With a ‘quick’ stop for gas, coffee and almond croissants in Banff. And a ‘quick’ stop in tourist-riddled Lake Louise to see ‘the lake’ and a ‘quick’ stop for gross food in the Lake Louise Village.


By the time we turned onto the Icefields Parkway, it was considerably later than it ought to have been, especially considering we were still hoping to do a hike and drive all the way to one-hour-past-Jasper Hinton. But the words ‘we probably don’t have time for this’ is not part of the Johnson travel vocabulary, so we pressed on. Cars were stopped along the highway and tourists were standing in the road, with cameras. We pulled over to see what had been spotted: a bear.

Apparently these particular tourists had not read the myriad of news stories about recent bear encounters, nor had they heard about the need to maintain a very large distance from wildlife, for they were standing in the road, on the same side as the bear, staring, snapping and speaking animatedly. An Italian trio had emerged from their vehicle with lattes and cappuccinos in hand to gaze upon the black bear eating berries.

‘Hellobonjour’ a Parks Canada ranger called to the oblivious tourists from the confines of his government-issued truck, ‘please get back in your vehicle.’ A few obliged, but most did not. ‘Hellobonjour,’ he tried again, ‘you need to get back in your vehicle.’

The hellobonjour struck me as exceedingly funny after having read [a portion of] ‘Why I Hate Canadians’ and learning a little bit about the bilingual politics of Canadaland. Thus I took it upon myself to say hellobonjour as often as possible throughout the trip, in any and every situation.

Also, in the spirit of full disclosure, I may have barked at les touristes to get in their cars. Much like my oldest son, I am a rule follower at heart.

‘So where did you want to hike,’ the professor asked me as we drove away from the bear sighting. I stared at the itinerary I’d created with its list of possible hikes en route to our destination. Unfortunately I hadn’t taken the time to note any details of the hikes, like distance or elevation gain or how long they might last.

‘I don’t know, it says Helen Lake,’ I revealed the first hike on my list. And without further thought or negotiation, the professor pulled into the Lac Helen parking lot and before I could say ‘I also have several other options on my list,’ we set off on our second hike of the trip, stopping briefly at the interpretive trail sign (there was one!) to learn a bit about this particular hike.

A quick glance revealed details like: 460m elevation gain, 12km return.

I was about to say ‘yeah, this is probably not the hike for us,’ when the professor enthused ‘let’s do it.’ And away we went; my poor Indiana-walking mother released onto a rather un-flat trail laden with tree roots. Or ‘troll toes’ as the professor would call them whenever the boys stumbled over the exposed roots.

He also enjoys hiking while making high pitched shrieking noises and pretending they originated from a mythical creature known as ‘the tickle falcon.’

Yes, these are the memories we are passing on to our children.


That thing I mentioned about time, in part un? It would have been handy to know the time at which we started hiking and the amount of time the hike was expected to take. Thus when Percy began to balk about his leg hurting and I began telling my ‘only ten more minutes’ lie, I might have had a sense of how big a lie I was really telling.

We pressed on, the professor inquiring discreetly from returning hikers about how long it might take to reach the lake. Each of them seemed to offer a different answer. ‘Only 45 more minutes,’ my better half told me at some point and I cajoled and bribed our very unhappy boy-children, promising whatever I could think of to keep them putting one foot in front of the other. A considerable amount of time later we reached an impasse. There were tears and people were falling to the ground, refusing to take even another step, and still the professor showed no signs of giving up. He seemed unusually hell-bent on finishing this hike he’d never even heard about, so I offered up the last bribe in my arsenal: a piggyback ride.

I hoisted fiftysomething-pound Percy onto my back and walked, decidedly uphill, for as long as I could stand it, and then a little bit more; earning exclamations of reverence from a tour group of seniors heading back. DSC_0319

We reached a meadow of sorts and I stopped a trio of returning hikers. ‘How much longer,’ I gasped, out of earshot from my falling-apart-contingent. A grey-haired man looked at his watch. ‘Mmmh, what time did you say we started hiking back,’ he asked one of his companions. ‘2:30’ a younger man replied. ‘So, we’ve been hiking down about 45 minutes, it should probably take you about an hour and fifteen to get up there.’

I was looking for answers in the vicinity of 15 minutes. As soon as I heard the word ‘hour’ I knew I would not be seeing Helen Lake. And so, our party of six, turned around and walked back to the parking lot. The professor tarried at the back, trying to digest his disappointment.

Johnsons 0 – Nature 2

The ‘funny’ thing about hiking with our semi-blond wonders, as soon as you say the words ‘let’s go back’ they turn into the happiest, most energetic children you’ve ever seen. Tears vanish and sore legs magically disappear as they sprint downhill, chatting excitedly and being their best selves. ‘I’m having fun on this hike,’ Percy exclaimed. The same kid who’d plopped to the ground sobbing about his legs and a host of other ailments. ‘Really,’ I rolled my eyes at the memory of his weight on my back.


By the time we finally got back to the car, it was around 4:30pm, with an indeterminate amount of driving remaining. Not to mention the matter of dinner. Just before 8pm we arrived at the less-than-stellar but infinitely fancier-than-a-trapper’s-tent White Wolf Inn in Hinton. Our dinner options were Dairy Queen and McDonald’s. Conveniently located on either side of our motel.

The boys ate blizzards and french fries, and my mom resigned herself to a DQ salad while the professor and I opted for self-made peanut butter and apricot jam sandwiches, consumed while watching the news. ‘It’s strangely delicious,’ I remarked. ‘Oh, I’m having two’ my better half agreed. He handed me an anniversary card. ‘I was going to do a toast when we got to Helen Lake,’ he explained, pointing to a half buried bottle of bubbles  in the middle of our stuff. Suddenly, his strange fixation on finishing the hike made sense. ‘You carried a bottle of prosecco on that hike,’ I asked incredulously.


Now that’s commitment.



Eight years in to This Albertan Life, and we still had not made it to the famed Jasper National Park, despite the fact that it’s only a four hour drive from where we live. Which, for ultra-roadtrippers such as ourselves, is a crying shame.

Sometime in the late Fall/early Winter I resolved that Summer 2016 would be the year to address this gaping hole in our national park repertoire. A resolution that happened to coincide with a visit from my mother, a weak Canadian dollar, and a similar declaration from thousands of scenery-loving Americans and Europeans with stronger currencies.

By the time I pulled out my credit card, ready to make a reservation – in March (which, for someone like me, is astoundingly timely) – everything was booked. Reserved. Full. Complet.

Thus I did what any single-minded, stubborn individual would do, I cobbled together a compressed itinerary with whatever accommodation I could find for our party of six. My dreamed about four nights in Jasper, turned into one night in a trapper’s tent in nearby Kananaskis, one night in a small town motel an hour from Jasper, and one night in a tent-cabin in Jasper. And two nights in a random cottage outside Waterton National Park. Because three nights does not a summer vacation make. And also the professor was still smarting from his failed attempt to drive the Going to the Sun Road in May.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how you turn an 800km journey into a 2,100km journey.


We arrived in Kananaskis on a Tuesday late-morning and stopped at the information center. The park ranger had the latest in bear-related trail closures. Because Summer 2016 has also turned into ‘The Summer of the Bear.’ ‘We were thinking about hiking Pocaterra Ridge,’ I declared-asked. ‘That’s open,’ she nodded, with a cautionary ‘bears have been sighted on that trail. But you’re on a ridge so you’d [probably] see them since you’re out in the open. We do strongly recommend bear spray but we are completely sold out.’

Luckily I’d procured my first-ever can of bear spray a few days prior, carefully considering whether possibly scaring off a bear was worth $60. I decided, rather grudgingly, that it was. Probably.

Really, I decided that not listening to my mom or the Gort worry aloud about our lack of bear spray was worth $60. Definitely.

I’ve also declared Summer 2016 as ‘The Summer of Hiking.’ Mostly because we are home all summer with nothing planned other than my five nights of random fun. And also because the boys are 12, almost 9 and almost 7 and doesn’t that mean they’re practically old enough to hike the Appalachian Trail?

But hiking has not turned out to be the simple pursuit I expected. I say this based on our only first hike of the summer to Chester Lake. I assumed you’d get a guidebook, select a trail, set foot on the trail, navigate the ensuing boy-child protestations and that would be that. But in my experience the trail finding instructions in the guidebook haven’t quite matched the scene in real-life, possibly due to everything being wiped out in the flood of 2013 or because the professor and I are incompetent trail interpreters. Maybe both.

What I’m really trying to say is, I found myself in the designated parking lot where the Pocaterra Ridge hike was supposed to start with instructions to ‘find a dirt trail at the interpretive loop trail sign. Head down the trail for a minute or 2. Take unmaintained trail on the left.’ Except there was no interpretive loop trail sign. No sign of any kind. Nothing.

The professor and I walked in a circle looking for said dirt trail. We found one….that led to a picnic table. We found one that didn’t appear to be a bonafide trail. And nothing else. So we started walking in the opposite direction on a gravel road with caution/do not cross tape across it along with some sort of bear related warning. Our oldest, rule-abiding boy-child expressed his dissension, loudly and repeatedly, while the professor insisted ‘mom checked at the information center and we were told this trail was fine’. All while I silently replayed the park ranger’s ‘bears have been sighted on the trail’ along with the fact that I was 99% sure we were on the wrong trail.

We walked and walked, without finding ‘the unmaintained trail on the left’, hoping the Gort wouldn’t see the big deposit of berry-laden bear scat and making as much noise as possible. Finally, one hour – maybe two – later I said to the professor ‘I’m pretty sure we are on the wrong trail, let’s just turn around.’

Another key component of hiking – one that I have yet to implement, though I see the value in it – is time, or, more specifically, keeping track of it. What time you start the hike, how long you’ve been hiking, how long you might expect to hike, that sort of thing. By the end of the summer I might wear a watch, or at least make a point of looking at the time on my phone instead of snapping photos obliviously.

On our way back to the car, I noticed a trail off in the distance, one that better matched the description and direction of the Pocaterra Ridge hike. Once we’d reached the van, I summoned the bear spray-carrying professor and we headed off in search of the missing trail. Sure enough, it was ‘the dirt trail that didn’t really look like a bonafide dirt trail.’

Johnsons 0-Nature 1

On the way to our campsite, we spotted this bear on the side of the road. From the safe confines of our car. The orange tag in its ear and collar around its neck gave the experience a bit of an ‘outdoor zoo’ rather than ‘wild bear in nature’ vibe.  But the professor, who loves nothing more than spotting animals while driving, was semi-satisfied. Even more so when we spotted a second, collar-less bear five minutes later.


We had not dabbled in camping-related activities since Summer 2014, also known as ‘The Summer we spent Two Nights in a Tent-Trailer.’ This was partly due to the fact that we spent Summer 2015 driving our brains out, but mostly because we were all still suffering from camping-related PTSD as a result of that abbreviated experience. So much so that when it came time to pack for this trip, I gathered wool blankets and sheets and fleece pajamas in addition to our sleeping bags because I can still remember how cold I’d been on those two August nights.

I’m actually shivering just typing that sentence.

People often talk about camping and how relaxing it is and we’ll just have to agree to disagree on that one. For in my experience it’s basically nonstop work – the planning, the purchasing, packing everything you might possibly need, food preparation, loading, driving, unloading, setting up, making a fire, cooking food, arguing with kids about fire, the ordeal of going to the bathroom, bear prevention (aka continuous cleanup), 3 or 4 hours of intermittent sleep in between wondering what time it is, hoping no one has to go to the bathroom, and how much longer before you can get up, making a fire, cobbling together an unsatisfactory breakfast, drinking bad coffee, cleaning up, packing up, loading and getting back in the car.

But I suppose if you’re going to do it, staying in a trapper’s tent is the lesser of all camping evils – equipped with bed-like structures, and freeing you from tent set-up duties. Leaving you with a spare 10 minutes to play Anomia with your kids and argue about rules and sportsmanship.