More Trees Than People

photo: gallagher lake, mountain

The motel was in front of the lake, at the
bottom of the rock.

Oh! Canada In 2000

Oliver:- Wednesday, 12. July 2000:- For one rare occasion, I got to be a visitor in another place. A place somewhat far away from where I usually hang my hat, coat, scarf and winter gloves.

If you are not overly familiar with the small town of Oliver, it is located in Canada's western province of British Columbia, east of the Cascades and about 535 kilometres by road from Vancouver - which may be closer to Tokyo than Paris.

Oliver is closer by plane - a one hour mountain-hopping flight. And by road it is closer to Washington State in the USA, but I did not get down there. I did not get to many other places either, other than Penticton where I landed; and OK Falls and Osoyoos.

OK Falls is basically a T-junction village, while the larger Osoyoos offers three whole directions to gophoto: mountain air, penticton airport besides back. Oliver is a straight drive-through and its main street is wide enough for one-sweep U-turns.

Mountain Air's twin-engined flagship, carries about a dozen passengers.

These places are in the Okanagan Valley which runs down from Canada's British Columbia into Washington State. The valley is lined with farms with a lot of orchards, their roadside fruit stands, and in the centre there are three lakes, joined by a river. Okanagan Lake is the biggest, so I didn't see much of it.

Stepping onto the runway at Penticton airport into a warm and fragrant night was pretty good after a long days' trip from drizzly Gatwick, where I'd hooked up with Willy and Max.

My sister picked us up and we took our first ride down the valley to Gallagher's Lake Lodge motel, which turned out to have its own little lake below a gigantic granite rock; plus an over-working air-conditioner and a snowy TV set with 87 channels of junk TV.

The first item of local economics the next morning was to figure out the money. Many coins were unchanged since I grew up there - in Vancouver, not Oliver - but there were some confusing new ones. A two-dollar coin looked like a big version of France's ten-franc piece, and was worth about the same.

This produced the shock of learning that the two-dollar coin buys about as much as a 25-cent piece used to - so you can guess what pennies must be worth - yet we got these routinely as change and also picked up a few lying on the pavements.

Dollar coins were like big pennies and did not look like a dollar. None of these were lying around, no matter what they're worth.

The second item was leisure - to help my nephew have a three-day party; an event he conducts annually with about 20 close friends. The fête was held in two locations about 11 kilometres apart, so this involved seeing OK Falls several hundred times, when more than twice is pretty much enough.

Owing to a great age difference between my kids and these older ones - in their 30's - we had to sneak off to eat before Willy and Max starved to death.

In this way, we were introduced to Highway 97 cuisine - either in horribly over-priced slow-service fast-food joints or in horribly over-priced slow-service 'family' restaurants.

'Family' restaurants used to be called neighborhood cafes. The food has not changed a particle in 40 years - except there are fewer Chinese cooks - and there was always a plastic squeeze container of ketchup on every table.

The former $1.75 meal usually cost more than $10. Mind you, these were Canadian dollars, which are about 67 US-cents - and compared to Paris prices, were not much out of line except that food I relished a long time ago became very monotonous very fast this time.

I didn't, for example, ever see a grilled-cheese sandwich on any menu - these are a common delicacyphoto: cinema, oliver in Spain - and were once widely available in Canada. Maybe residents got tired of the cheese, which still seems to be manufactured by the same one and only company.

Plain outside, comfortable inside; the Oliver cinema - in Oliver.

One evening, my niece took us to Oliver's cinema - called the 'Oliver' - and after the 'Dinosaur' movie we decided to get a take-away pizza. There were 13 choices for toppings; which allowed about 47 combinations - as well as being offered in four sizes.

Being hand-made, these took a long time to concoct. By the time our two-kilo 'medium' was ready, we were beyond starvation and Max objected to the pepperoni. I would have objected to it too, but it was an emergency situation.

After nearly two weeks of Canadian 'dining,' all I can say is if you have to eat there, you should eat at my sister's. If she is in the mood, she out-cooks any commercial establishment.

For desserts, the boys' favorite was Twickleberry's, which had 49 kinds of ice cream and tons of fudge. Except for souvenirs, the drive-in place didn't have anything else - except for a hot-dog stand tacked on the front. We didn't try them, but locals recommended its versions highly.

For fresh food, my sister and brother-in-law took us fishing. This involved their four-wheel-drive 'vehicle,' 60 kilometres of logging roads and a rise in elevation of 1000 metres. As a non-resident, a fishing license was deemed too expensive for me, so only underage Willy and Max fished - without success, alas!

We saw wild deer on the way up and at the lake we were warned by other sports fishermen to watch out for black bears in the vicinity. Against mosquitos we had an electronic gizmo that worked fine until the large and overly aggressive mosquitos arrived.

This didn't happen until after we had not caught any fish for several hours, had our do-it-yourself hot-dogs and scorched mushmallows, and the hail started. The European elements of our party were not dressed for any of this.

On the drive back down, we saw as many trees as on the drive up. Canada has a lot of trees - and not just in British Columbia. If you take the train from Winnipeg to Ottawa or Toronto, you'll become bored nearly to death by them, unless it is night.

This whole visit was timed to be before the potato harvest. Despite careful planning this advanced itself, so we had a bit of time to explore the countryside for ourselves.

I wanted to get some photos of older places or even ghost towns. Young boys prefer swimming pools and amusement parks, so these are what we saw instead.

I drove near to but went past a couple of other places I wanted to get to see, but they were not sufficientlyphoto: bumper boats, rattlesnake ranch sign-posted. Basically I shuttled endlessly back and forth between Penticton and Osoyoos for 12 days, usually on the only road, which was highway 97.

The kids loved everything about fishing - even the worms - but liked bumper-boats better.

Other drivers did this a lot too, especially in all manner of pickup trucks. Since there are more of these - plus logging trucks, everything trucks and long-haul fruit and veg trucks - anything on wheels was called a 'vehicle.'

Some of these seemed to have very big motors, but everybody seemed content to drive extremely slowly - perhaps because of the fascinating scenery.

I enjoyed being able to see things whole kilometres away, so I got into the habit of driving slowly too - except in 'slow to 40' corners. Going through these at 80 kph was the only local thrill available.

At first I thought the signs meant 'mph' and I had a few extra thrills by being a little fast in a car that was designed for shopping mall parking lots. Although it seemed to be a fairly new car, it was designed for locking the keys inside it.

Its shifter was also strange with the main options being 'R' for racing, 'D' for plain driving and 'P' for parking, which it did fairly well. It took me a while to figure out I had to stomp on the brakes to get it out of the 'P' mode into 'R' or 'D,' and I never figured out how to turn its headlights off.

A lot of other drivers seemed to have the same problem. But between the promising fine weather at the beginning and 36 hours of wonderful weather at the end, the daytimes in the middle were kind of gloomy - and, as we say in Paris - 'a bit below normal for the time of year.'

This was especially noticeable at night, while sitting on the porch of our motel cabin, watching logging trucks roaring past on old 97. This is where the big flowerpot full of sand I assumed to be an ashtray was - which is typical for a 'no smoking' country I guess.

In other ways, it was pretty peaceful. While the party was going on, I had to go back to the potato ranch and get something - a coat or a sweater I think - and the door was unlocked.

As soon as I opened it the burglar alarm went off. I didn't waste time trying to figure out where it was or how to turn it off, but I did wait around for the law to arrive.

After a long time of this - and the howling alarm - I gave up. Just after passing the farm'sphoto: kilo onion scale, covert farms gates, I spotted a RCMP 'vehicle' - a cop car, not any kind of truck - approaching, so I stopped and waved at the law enforcement officer.

He stopped too and I said, "I set off the burglar alarm." Not many burglars would do this so he took my papers, told me to stay put, and drove into the farm to look at the house.

One of Pancho's onions breaks kilo barrier. That's right - Canada has metric onions!

After a long time he came back because he couldn't find it. I showed him where it was. Luckily I had my nephew's phone number. The officer asked me to get into his cop car and I'm not sure he wanted me to sit in front, beside the Vietnam-style riot gun, but this is what I did.

When somebody at the party got my sister to the phone, the Mountie explained the alarm and my capture. I held up my hands in a cuffed-gesture and he relayed this signal.

Well, everybody in Canada has a mobile phone and a radio scanner for eavesdropping on the law, so this is how the whole valley found out about my sister's brother from Paris getting handcuffed for burglary by Canada's alert police force.

During the visit I didn't happen to enter any Canadian 'unfamily' cafés where drinks are served instead of food, so I can't report on the conditions in these places - I don't even know if there are Canadians who don't have families so they can go into them.

All sorts of other places sell beer and wine, seven days a week; and even sell cigarettes. This appears to be a widespread but nearly subversive activity - forbidden to residents under 19 - and I noticed nearly no smokers under the age of 85.

This excludes the airport in Vancouver, where people arrive after anxious flights of up to 14 hours, or even days. Airport workers and travellers were huddled outside it, puffing away whole packages, alongside the world's largest ashtrays, only sightly smaller than standard-sized oil drums.

I spent about 10 hours of my life in Vancouver's airport, which I think is an odd way to travel quickly. The airport has always been 'International' because of Canadians' love of Hawaii, but somebody has gone overboard with a size mania. I even saw plans for extending it over to Lulu Island.

For its one runway, the airport building is longer than it. It is bigger than London's huge Gatwick, but I only saw its South Terminal. In Vancouver you can nearly see all of it from the outside smoking area - with the 'International' part being two kilometres from the domestic flight part.

But this is merely a facade. What you don't immediately see, is the maze of an area behind the check-in - which leads to another three kilometres, past all the duty-free shops selling maple-leaf t-shirts, shirts, jackets, golf bags, tractor caps, duty-free bags, Canadian whisky, Canadian wine and possibly even Canadian cigarettes.

Canada Day was celebrated in Canada while I was there. I'm glad Canada finally has found a name for this day, which is every 1. July. Before it was called 'Canada Day' nobody knew what it was.

Even in OK Falls every second house had a flag displayed. This alonephoto: fast food, lemnade amounted to more flags than I had ever seen while living in Canada for nearly 30 years - although the new flag only was in use a couple of years before I left.

The other side of the sign says, "Voted Best Ice Cream In the Valley" - all spelled correctly.

What surprised me though was that the flags were still flying a week later. I suppose it could be like some Parisians forgetting to take down their Christmas trees until Saint-Valentine's Day.

Up in the country, the red and white maple-leaf flags make a lively contrast against the background of the ever-present trees - year-round live Christmas trees!

I suppose when the folks get tired of all the commercials on TV they can step out of their plastic-sided houses or tin containers with windows, and rest their eyes on one of the few symbols without slogans or logos.

British Columbia has a flag too. It has the old Union Jack on top, horizontal wavy blue stripes underneath, and a fried egg with sunrays on the lower part. Nobody knows what it means.

Another thing; I don't recall anybody asking me what I thought of Canada. With all the flags around, why bother? Nobody is in doubt about what it is anymore. Not 'Kingdom of...' and not 'Republic of...' - just short and simple, Canada.

In Paris I am often asked about Canada. Before this trip I would hesitate to say much because Canada is one of the world's largest countries where not much happens and this is without a great deal of fanfare. How could I know what's going on there?

Now I can tell curious Parisians that Canada is a 'no smoking' country. Except for this, it is pretty much the same as it was. There is a heck of a lot of it, but there are still more trees than people. More or less like it was before any European tourists visited it and stayed for its fish, pelts, wheat, minerals and timber.

Which reminds me - there were some grumbles about how Indians are winning court battles to get their land back. The former European 'tourists' are not happy about this one tiny bit.

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