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Posts Tagged ‘Terrace’

This was only the second year that I attended the Freda Diesing School’s year end exhibition, but the show has become a must-see for me. For one thing, it is one of the largest exhibitions of Northwest Coast art in any given year. For another, I never know what I might find, either because a student is unknown, or has taken a giant leap forward in their understanding of their art.

The 2010 show was slightly smaller than the previous year’s, and emphasized carving more than design, although a few limited edition prints and drawings were available up in the loft, as well as a sampling of giclee prints by second year student Mitch Adams. But in compensation, the level of carving was higher than last year, probably because, instead of specifying that each student submit three pieces to the show, the teachers urged students to focus on producing their best work, and starting it early (even so, there were many groans about last minute all-night sessions).

Close to the door were masks by people whose work I have bought in the past. John Wilson contributed his hawk woman mask to the show, which I had seen pictures of, but was glad to see in person:

Wilson also contributed a large spoon, whose beaver handle included more detail work than I had seen before in his work:

Besides Wilson’s mask hung Colin Morrison’s second mask, whose red design made the wood look like a sun-tan, and contrasted with the white hair he used:

Moving on from Wilson’s and Morrison’s masks, I quickly discovered work from artists I remembered from 2009. Previous YVR award winner Shawn Aster, whose main interest seems to be design rather than carving, contributed a mask whose interest is largely in the painting:

Second year Metis artist Mathew Daratha was one of the more prolific contributors to the show, displaying several masks, such as this one:

Still another second year student, Latham Mack, the two-times recipient of the YVR Award, was allowed to carve in his family’s traditional Nuxalk style, producing a strikingly different Thunder Mask:

Mack also danced a similar mask after the graduation ceremony.

But perhaps the most development among the second year students was shown by Sheldon Dennis, whose carving showed a considerable advance over his work last year, as well as a strong sense of originality:

Female students continue to be a minority at the school, but those enrolled in the first year class this year made a strong showing. Cherish Alexander showed a talent for combining feminine faces with bold designs:

Carol Young, the winner of the first Mature Student Award, showed a similar interest in women’s faces, and added a traditional labret to indicate high status in one of her masks:

Another first year female student, Nina Bolton chose a more traditional shape for her mask, but gave it a strong, contrasting design when she painted it:

Some of the most striking work in the show was created by Chazz Mack, Latham Mack’s cousin. Chaz Mack include two pieces in the show: a small print, and a mask whose painted design shows a strong sense of line in its curves:

However, if the show had a single outstanding piece, it was Mitch Adams’ “Blue Moon Mask.” The piece was the despair of at least one of the school’s teachers, all of whom work in the northern style and favor masks with much less paint than “Blue Moon Mask,” but its clean lines and carefully selected palette made it a crowd favorite, with at least half a dozen people clamoring to buy it:

When Adams agreed to sell it to me, several other would-be buyers frankly expressed their jealousy, and cursed their lack of initiative; apparently, I was the only one who actually asked Adams if he was firm about the Not For Sale label.

In fact, if the show had a fault, it was that most of the best pieces were labeled as not for sale for one reason or the other. If I had had my way, I could have returned home with another three or four pieces from this years’ show.

However, that’s a selfish wish. Many of the pieces marked as not for sale were reserved for the upcoming Northern Exposure show at Vancouver’s Spirit Wrestler Gallery. For many students, the show is their first chance to display their work to a large audience, so I can hardly blame them for withholding their work from sale. All of them thoroughly deserve that chance, and I hope that I will have many chances in the future to buy their work.

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On April 23, I did something I had been waiting to do for ten months: I stood up at the graduation ceremony for the Freda Diesing School of Northwest Coast Art at Northwest Community College in Terrace, and gave out the first Mature Student Award. Trish and I hope it will be the first of many, and I think the award got off to a good start by having Carol Young (Bagshaw) as the first recipient.

A member of the Haida Eagle side, Young did not grow up with traditional culture, but absorbed much of it indirectly from her mother. Later, as a single mother of four, she began selling a variety of handicrafts and art pieces loosely based on Northwest Coast design on eBay. Although she says she never thought of herself as an artist, she sold over a hundred pieces of every description imaginable. Masks, rattles, miniature canoes, and, most of all, Haida-inspired dolls – all of these and more she managed to produce as a way of bringing in extra money.

With her children grown, Young decided to do something for herself, and enrolled in the Freda Diesing School last September. Her teachers and fellow students tell me that at first she seemed to have trouble feeling comfortable in the dorms or the class room, and that learning formline design didn’t come easily to her after years of doing things her way.

However, in the second semester, especially after hearing that she had won the Mature Student Award, Young started to hit her stride. Her design took on a new discipline and maturity as she absorbed what the teachers had been telling her, and she found a place among the other students, most of whom were far younger – although at times, she told me with a smile, she felt that her role was that of den-mother in the dorms.

By the end of the school year, Young had become the speaker for the first year students, announcing them at the graduation ceremony, and appearing with fellow student Sheldon Dennis on a CBC podcast about the school. She also took it on herself to present me with a school cap and T-shirt, and, when I requested one for Trish (who was unable to attend the graduation), gave me hers, claiming that she didn’t wear T-shirts anyway – a kindness that I was grateful for, although I wondered if it was true.

During the podcast, Young said that attending the school had given her “a whole new life.” Previously, I had only contacted her briefly via email, but when I met her during the graduation ceremony and exhibition, she seemed like a person who was happy about the direction she was heading. Not only was she in the middle of preparations and cleanup for the weekend, but she talked about how she hoped she could present a female perspective in her carving, which she felt – despite the name of the school – had been under-represented or explored. She said, too, that she would like to establish an award for women at the school, and would like to teach after she graduated next year.

My impression is that Young is the sort of self-starter who can get where she wants to be under her own power and on her own terms. But I would like to think that the Mature Student Award made her self-development a little easier and quicker than it might otherwise have been.

As the first recipient of the award, she sets a high standard. If next year’s winner is even half as deserving, I will feel that our ongoing involvement in the school through the award has been worthwhile.

Carol Young, First Recipient of the Mature Student Award at the Freda Diesing School of Northwest Coast Art

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For many modern Northwest Coast artists, improving their skills means discovering their culture. Kaska/Tlingit artist Dean Heron is no different, except that he came to his art and culture later than most of his peers – and, that, in pursuit of both, last year he moved north to Terrace, instead of staying in the south where many NorthWest Coast artists now spend at least part of the year.

“I was adopted as a child,” Dean explains, “and grew up in a non-First Nations family,” mostly in Whitehorse, Kitimat, and Powell River. “I had grandparents who lived in Victoria, so we’d often go down to Victoria in the summer time. My parents always used to drag me to the Royal British Columbian Museum to look into my culture, but at that point I was six or seven, and I was more interested in riding my bike, playing street hockey – being a kid.”

Creating the Watchmen

Then, when Heron grew up, he worked as an assistant manager at a Milestones restaurant, and later in the IT department of the British Columbia Ministry of Health in Victoria.

Heron did have a general interest in art of all sorts, and he remembers a two-week survey of First Nations art when he was in Grade Seven in Kitimat. However, it was only after he met his wife Therese that his interest in his ancestral culture and art began to take shape.

“She was very inquisitive, always asking me questions about Tlingit culture,” Heron recalls. “We’d go down to the Royal BC Museum and she’d ask me all sorts of questions. And I was just blank. I didn’t really have any idea.”

Then, one Christmas in the early 1990s, when they were both students and short of money, Heron was pondering how he could give presents. “I had no idea. So Therese said, ‘Why don’t you create something?’ I think I laughed out loud, actually. I didn’t think I had an artistic bone in my body. But she went out and bought a book on First Nations art, and that was the beginning.”

Returning Sockeye

Making the artistic connections

Even then, for years art was more a hobby than anything else. Heron know no artists, but he received encouragement from Victoria gallery directors such as John Black and Elaine Monds. “I would take my early paintings down to Elaine or John Black, and get criticisms on them and come back and produce something else.”

At the time, Monds’ Alcheringa Gallery was displaying the works of master carver Dempsey Bob and his star pupils Stan Bevan and Ken McNeil, although most of them sold quickly. Heron also remembers visiting Vancouver to see the Inuit Gallery.

“But what really did it for me was a book that Dempsey Bob had produced with the Grace Gallery called Dempsey Bob Tahltan Tlingit – Carver of the Wolf Clan. It was this little catalog, way out of print now – I don’t know if you could even find it. There was a picture of a wolf forehead mask, and I had never seen anything like it. It was distinctly Dempsey Bob’s style – it was brilliant. And I just went, ‘Wow! That’s exactly what I want to be doing’ – although at that time I didn’t really know how I was going to do it.”

Moon Mask

Then, somehow, “it all just sort of fell into place for me.” A few weeks after his family moved into a house in Victoria, he met Dempsey Bob’s son and his family at a children’s birthday barbecue. A couple of weeks later, he met Bob himself, “and it changed everything.”

Bob invited Heron to Manawa – Pacific Heartbeat, an event sponsored by the Spirit Wrestler Gallery in Vancouver featuring Maori and First Nations artists from British Columbia. There, Heron says, “I realized just how rich the culture was, and just how much I’d been missing.” Near the end of the event, Bob mentioned that the Freda Diesing School was about to open at the Terrace campus of Northwest Community College, and invited him to enroll and learn to carve.

Finding roots in the north

Deciding to accept Bob’s offers “was a giant leap of faith for me,” Heron recalls. His children were six and one, and both Heron and his wife had jobs in the provincial Ministry of Health. “But I never looked back. I think it was the best decision I ever made.”

Killer Whale Comb

After Victoria, life in Terrace “was a huge culture shock. We had everything in Victoria. That’s probably what I miss the most – having a good theater and good restaurants to choose from,” Heron says.
However, the adjustments in daily life soon seemed unimportant compared to what Heron was learning about his ancestral culture and art. Suddenly, Heron was being taught by Dempsey Bob, Stan Bevan, and Ken McNeil – three artists he had admired for years.

Today, Heron praises them for their commitment towards art, their professionalism and work ethic, and their dedication. “Although established artists, they are always learning and pushing themselves forward – and thus pushing the art forward,” Heron says. “As well, they share all their knowledge with their students. Dempsey always says, ‘Why wouldn’t I share it? If I did not, we could lose all that we have gained in a generation – it is why I am here.’”

In the new environment, Heron found his relationship to traditional culture and art changing.

“Back when I was working on art on my own, I didn’t know the rules completely. Working with Stan and Ken and Dempsey, the whole idea is that you learn the rules and make them your own. Then, you can star innovating. But you have to work from a base of tradition, which the school does.

“The first eight weeks of school, all we did was draw ovoids and U forms and secondary figures. And they break down the components of the design, so they do wing design one week and they do head designs another week. Then they’ll do feet designs and tail designs, and then you put the pieces together. The first year, there were only seven [students], so it was a really tight group of friends.

SmallTlingit Portrait Mask

“Another thing that Stan and Dempsey have really convinced me of is [the value of] collecting books. At the time I was working on my own, I was looking at galleries and contemporary works of artists like Robert Davidson, Joe David, and Art Thompson, and I never really gave any validity to the old works that are in museums and collections. That was my mentality – that’s a long time ago, that’s history. But I think everybody’s who’s doing the art and is a professional will look at the old art. [The old artists] are still pertinent today. Their advantage was they lived the art. The art was around them all the time. They used the spoons, they used the bowls, and they saw the regalia all the time.”

The result of this discipline and re-evaluation, according to Heron, is that “I’m starting to realize that there’s a lot more rules involved in creating pieces. You can’t just go out and create a frog headdress without getting permission from chiefs or elders. I’m starting to learn a lot more of those rules, where before I just drew and painted what I wanted without any thought of the culture itself. Now, I’m more careful with what I’m creating.”

Killer Whale Plaque

This new attitude created a crisis of faith when Heron, perhaps motivated by his new sense of traditional culture, looked for his birth family. Although his biological mother declined to contact him, Heron did learn that he was part Kaska, not completely Tlingit, as he had assumed.

“I remember the day I found out, my first thought was, ‘I can’t practice the art. I’m tied to those Kaska roots.’ But I found digging into my family history that there was more of a Tlingit side. So I paint particularly in the Tlingit style.”

Today and Onwards

Now, Heron thinks he might explore the Kaska side of his heritage. “I’m starting to think that as a person I have the right to know where I’m from,” he says. “So I’m looking more into the Kaska side.” In the summer of 2010, he hopes to take his family to Watson Lake for Kaska Days.

However, whether he will explore Kaska art remains uncertain. “It’s much different from the coastal art. A lot of it is beading, and moose antler carving, drumming and singing. I think they were a more nomadic people [than the Tlingit]. There’s not a lot of information out there.”

Meanwhile, Heron is keeping busy. In the fall of 2009, he completed a mural for the Snowboard Pavilion at Cypress Mountain for the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Games. “I’ve had lots of people comment on it, via email and letters,” he says.

Snowboarding Mural, Cypress Mountain

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In addition, for much of the last year, he has been painting designs for a longhouse on the grounds of the Terrace campus of Northwest Community College. Stan Bevan is doing the formlines, and Heron and student Shawn Aster are doing the secondary elements. Currently, the interior screens are done, and the house front is being completed. The longhouse is scheduled to be completed in early May.

Dean Heron at work in the longhouse

When the longhouse is complete, Heron plans to continue carving his own work. In addition, “I have lots of images that I’d like to get printed.” He would also like to begin doing clothing designs, and learning jewelry-making.

Dedicating himself to art and moving into a community that was strange to him was a huge gamble, but Heron clearly feels that it has paid off for him.

“Growing up, I always felt that I was at the front door, but not right inside – always looking through the window and looking at these sculptures and not understanding the whole of them. I mean, I still don’t. And I think that’s part of the experience of being adopted and being First Nations. I’m at the point now where I’m straddling two different cultures, really. I have a non-first Nations family, so I’m getting an outsider’s point of view, but now I’m living in the community and understanding a lot more of it.”

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Last year, when I attended the Freda Diesing School Student Art Exhibition in Terrace, I noticed that most of the awards were for students 25 years old or younger. The school has some fine younger artists, but I thought that the older students deserved some recognition, too. To fill the gap, Trish and I decided to sponsor a Mature Student Award of $1000 per year, and to work towards making the award self-funding.

The official description of the award reads:

This award is given annually to a mature student (25 and over) from the
Freda Diesing School of Northwest Coast Art who has demonstrated
leadership and mentoring qualities in the classroom. Faculty from the
School of Northwest Coast Art will select a student after confirmation of
enrollment in the second semester of the certificate or diploma program.

The award recipient must; be a First Nations Freda Diesing School of
Northwest Coast Art student; identify and work with a mentor to facilitate
the ongoing learning process; reside in British Columbia; demonstrate
potential in visual arts in the Northwest Coast style; and display
mentoring and leadership qualities in their relationships with other
students in the school both inside and outside class.

The award will be given for the first time in January 2010.

I have two main reasons for starting the award. First, as a late bloomer in my own craft of writing, I sympathize with the mature students. Being a student is hard enough when you are twenty, but when you are thirty-five or fifty, returning to school is even harder, because you probably have a family, and you are more set in your ways. Often, it means giving up a steady income when you’ve been used to one for years.

At the same time, I know from years as a university English instructor that older students are worth encouraging. They add a maturity to the discussion, and often serve as role-models and mentors to younger students.

Second, I am a buyer and lover of northwest coast art, especially art in the northern style taught at the school. I am not one of those people descended from Europeans who feel personally responsible for the wrongs against the First Nations that began before I was born, but I do believe in paying my debts and in doing the little I can to alleviate current problems. Northwest Coast art has given me hours of pleasure and learning, and I want to repay those hours with more than simple payment for each piece. I’d like to think that the award would help a student a little in the short term and in the long term maybe help them to launch their careers.

Compared to the other awards that the school gives, the Mature Student Award is starting off slowly. But I hope that it will eventually match the other awards, and become self-perpetuating.

If you are an artist, an art dealer, or someone who appreciates Northwest Coast art, please consider donating to the Mature Student Award. But don’t contact me. Instead, please contact Jill Girodat, the Associate Registrar at the Terrace campus of Northwest Community College at 250-638-5477 or jgirodat AT nwcc DOT bc DOT ca.

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“How does this compare to a show down south?” John Wilson asked me last week, shortly after I arrived at the Freda Diesing School Student Art Exhibition in Terrace. He seemed surprised when I told him that a 23 person show with some 75 pieces almost never happened, but it’s true. The annual show is one of the largest annual exhibits of modern Northwest Coast Art anywhere.

The show lasted only two days, with a private viewing for friends and family on Friday and a public viewing on Saturday. The location is the Freda Diesing Studio on the Terrace campus of Northwest Community College, a well-lit building with a large lower floor ordinarily occupied by work benches and a loft for a more conventional class room setting:

fd-studio1

Just inside the door, above the table with the show catalog and price list were a few prints by Freda Diesing herself, including a self-portrait mask:

fd-self-portrait

These works were not for sale, but stood as tutelary spirits of the show – or, more precisely, as the standards to which the students should aspire.

Several months ago, I reviewed the school’s mid-term show via a collection of pictures sent to me by John Wilson. That show was mostly painting and sketches, the first year class in particular having not begun its study of carving at the time. By contrast, the year-end show had a few two-dimensional pieces, but consisted largely of paddles, spoons, and masks.

Painted paddles are closer to two dimensional than three dimensional works, so I was not surprised when two of the best-designed paddles were from Shawn Aster and Latham Mack, two artists who were among the standouts at the earlier shows and scholarship winners at the graduation ceremonies that accompanied the private viewing:

shawn-aster-paddle

latham-mack-paddle

However, making the transition from the two-dimensional craft of painting to the three-dimensional one of carving does not always comes easily, and many students are still making it. Latham Mack, for instance (who as a Nuxalk, is learning his second style of carving), is well on the way, using the same blue that I am starting to recognize as characteristic of his two-dimensional designs:
latham-mack

By contrast, a mask by Shawn Aster shows a sense of surfaces, but seems more tentative, with a shallowness in the carving and a thinness of line that makes you only appreciate the mask up close, as seen in this (unfortunately cropped) picture:

shawn-aster-mask

A similar lack of ease in three dimensions is true of Todd Stephens, another scholarship winner from whom I’ve bought several paintings:

todd-stephens

Other students showed similar learning curves – and, as might be expected in a student show – a certain tendency to conformity – although Norman McLean, Sr., in a triumph of social sensibility over aesthetics did do a bright pink mask, as well as a spoon with a more discrete pink ribbon around the handle as fund-raisers for breast cancer. Still, there were some interesting pieces here and there.

Sophia Patricia Beaton, another scholarship winner, had only one piece in the show, but the wavy hair and the obviously feminine face and the labret were original enough to make me wonder what the rest of her work might be like:

sophia-beaton

I also noticed James Weget-McNeil’s frog mask, which, although in a very different style, reminded me of some of the faux-artifacts that Beau Dick has been carving recently:

james-weget-mcneil1

However, much of the interesting carving came from mature students with more experience.

Charles Richard Wesley, whose work I noticed in the mid-term show, came up with two interestingly intricate masks:

charles-richard-wesley

I also appreciated John Wilson’s work, which he says represents an advance in finishing details over his earlier work – pointing, for example, an indentation of the eye sockets at the top of the nose:

john-wilson

These are just some of the pieces in the show, but, aside from the bowls (something needing to be left out), they give an idea of the variety to be seen at the show. I appreciate the chance to see students learning and mastering their craft, and while some flaws and weaknesses are apparent, there are just as many examples of solid and skilled works.

In fact, I could have come away from the show considerably poorer. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on my shifting perspective, most of the pieces I considered buying were marked NFS, many earmarked for a show at the Spirit Wrestler Gallery in Vancouver later this month.

But buying is only one reason to attend such a show. A far better reason is spend a few hours surrounded by efforts of art – and that, so far as I am concerned, is more than enough reason for me to want to attend next year’s show.

My thanks to Stan Bevan for seeing that I got an invitation. That small kindness gave me an enriching day.

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“Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things!” Bilbo Baggins says about adventures in The Hobbit. “Make you late for dinner!” Working out of our townhouse, I sympathize with that view. But, as with Bilbo, there must be something Tookish in me lying in wait. When I was invited to go to Terrace for the end of the year show at the Fred Diesing School of Northwest Coast Art, I was determined to go. To fly 1350 kilometers only to return the next day seemed more than a little quixotic, especially when I didn’t feel I could really afford the trip and had never met anyone there, but the whole idea seemed irresistible. For someone who had never been farther north than 100 Mile House, it seemed a small adventure, all the more interesting because I was moving way out of my comfort zone.

I flew out of the South Terminal of the Vancouver Airport, a relic of quieter days that services the coast and the remoter areas of British Columbia. After looping around the city, with me peering out eagerly to spot the Metrotown Towers, Swangard Stadium, Cleveland Dam and other visible landmarks, we headed north. The mountains grew progressively taller and more snowcapped, and I tried not to be disappointed that all I could see of the coast was the occasional inlet masquerading as a river at first glance.

I won a T-shirt in an on-board raffle, and hoped it was an indicator of how my luck was running.

As we circled Terrace and descended to the airport, I could see signs of logging that showed that I was flying into a resource extraction community. From the air, I could see that the evergreens flanking the highway were often only one hundred meters thick, and that the town, whatever its other virtues, was a stranger to zoning in most areas.

At every other airport I’ve ever visited, taxis are always awaiting incoming flights. But not at the Terrace-Kitimat Airport. Rather sheepishly, I retraced my steps and hunted for the direct phone for the taxi.

After twenty minutes, an Indian driver – that is, someone from India, not a First Nation – picked me up and took me directly to the college. We crossed the Skeena, brown with the spring runoff, and through the mixture of stores and industrial sites that forms the downtown, and up a hill to a suburb where small houses mixed with hobby farms of a few acres and pasturage for a cow or horse or two.

Semi-rural British Columbia, I thought, reminded of places in Surrey and Langley and the Sunshine Coast. I decided I could deal with it.

All the same, the college seemed incongruous when it suddenly appeared. Paying off the driver, I found my way to the cafeteria to fortify myself and ask directions if I needed to.

A bagel and orange juice revived me, and I headed across the parking lot in the middle of the college. A few inquiries confirmed that the building with the high roof and large windows was the Freda Diesing School, just as I had thought. Trundling my carry-on, I stepped inside.

Almost instantly, I was greeted by Jennifer Davidson, Henry Green, and Peter Jackson, at least one of whom must have a stronger ability to recognize people from their photos than I’ve ever managed. Then I started meeting people – Bill McMillian, carver and teacher Stan Bevan, and students with whom I’d been in contact with online but never met, including John Wilson, Latham Mack, Sean Aster, and Todd Stephens, to say nothing of ex-students like Dean Heron. The sheer number of people to meet was overwhelming, and their friendliness left me exhilarated. Really, a stranger couldn’t have asked for a better welcome to a group with such close internal connections.

I just barely had time to go around the show (which deserves a blog of its own) snapping pictures like mad before it was time to trek across campus for the graduation ceremony. While we were milling about, Jennifer Davidson took the opportunity to photograph the copper bracelet that Henry Green did for me eighteen months ago, and Henry threated to straighten it out, evoking a squeal of dismay from me.

After rampaging through the buffet, the crowd sat through the usual round of thanks at graduation ceremonies. Mercifully we were spared long speeches, although I did notice most of the students gradually sitting lower and lower in their chairs. But an end came at last, with the most deserving students receiving awards and all of them praised for their dedication.

Two drummers, one of whom was a student, were supposed to lead a procession back to the studio, but the riff-raff like me at the back lingered so long that we missed most of it. I had a chance to look at the exhibits more carefully, and saw the sketches for one piece that I hope to eventually buy, and all too soon the show was over.

John Wilson drove me downtown, where I found a hotel and we headed out for Chinese food. A sign that we were in the north was that one of the offerings at the restaurant was salmon in black bean sauce.

I had hoped to meet sculptor Ron Telek, but he was busy with family matters, and we had to make do with a quick phone call late at night. I found myself wishing that I had booked another day, both to see Ron and to see more of the town, but, as things were, I fell asleep exhausted and buoyed by the friendly welcome I had received.

The next morning, I was at the airport before most of the staff (Memo: in small towns, the rule of arriving two hours before a flight doesn’t apply). Tired but satisfied, I flew south, putting adventures behind me for a while. But now that I’ve ventured north once, I’m sure I’ll be coming back again. Terrace may be more distant from my townhouse than Calgary, but in many ways it feels more like home.

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