Kanatha-Aki – A Healing Place

My stallion Colos and me. Photo courtesy of Pierre Bessette.

A big brown eye cautiously regards me. I’m stroking his neck, but Colos is a rescue horse who has been mistreated, so he’s not sure about this human. After a few minutes, we make friends, but mounting this gentle giant offers a different challenge; I can’t reach the stirrup without a hand up. He stands patiently as I climb into the saddle in an undignified scramble.

We’re at Kanatha-Aki, in Val des Lacs, a beautiful part of Quebec’s Laurentian Mountains. The words are Algonquin for “guardian of the boundless earth” and boundless is a good description of my experience. The peace of the setting – trees, water, mountains – surrounds and envelops us. As our little group arrives, two dozen sled dogs, slumbering by their wooden houses, lift their heads and follow us with their large blue eyes.

Inside a rustic cabin, animal pelts are hung on the walls, and native artifacts are everywhere. We tentatively shake hands with our host, Stéphane Denis.

Denis is a survivor of the native residential schools. This place is his answer to the pain of his past, bringing healing for himself, and for those who come here. “In order to be at peace, we have to forgive,” he says. “Only send out good energy.”

Our little group shares a cheese fondue – delicious, sustaining, and appropriate as this place is all about sharing.

Sophie Williams, who offers Amerindian massage here, tells us of Stéphane’s history. His healing strength seems to permeate this place. She describes groups who come here as individuals and leave as a team. She talks about the transformation of families who hardly ever hug one another, and leave as a unit. “Animals and nature purify our body and our spirit,” she explains.

Indeed, the horses are not the only rescued beasts here in more ways than one.

In the mountains above, a small herd of wood bison is so tame that when Léana, Stephane’s daughter calls loudly, they come lumbering out of the mist on the hilltop, to say hello. These are ancient beasts, Léana explains. “They survived the Ice Age and were crucial to the survival of early humans.”

While there are preservation efforts being made in Alberta and the Northwest Territories, this is the first and only wood bison reserve in Quebec, protecting a species currently threatened with extinction.

Colos and I have come together to visit the bison. When I dismount, he starts cropping the young grass. For him, this must be as delicious as my cheese fondue.

In winter, we might go dog sledding, or don snowshoes to explore the woodland. But this is spring. The new shoots are up, the trees are budding and spring flowers dot the landscape. I could have zoomed across the landscape on zip lines, a favourite activity for visitors to Kanatha-Aki. But I’m content with my more sedate method of locomotion. Two sled dogs accompany our horses, scampering ahead.

Our slow descent to the cabin provides breathtaking views of the pastoral landscape and deep breaths of fresh, clean air. As we approach the cabin, loud barks welcome us back. The other sled dogs have spotted our two canine guides and are saying hello. The horses are eager to return to the barn and break into a jog-trot.

He’s glad to be home but I say goodbye reluctantly to my equine buddy.

Before we leave, one more experience awaits. Stéphane takes me aside for a smudging ceremony. I stand still, my arms extended to the side, while the sweet scent of sage smoke is wafted around me. He uses a feather to anoint my head, my eyes, my mouth, my heart…all the while he is speaking quiet words. He speaks of healing, of letting anger go, of goodness, and as the words wash over me, I feel an upswell of emotion. It’s a remarkable, therapeutic sensation.

When we say goodbye, we forsake the cool handshake with which we began our meeting. Stéphane envelops me in a giant bearhug which goes on…and on. “It should be heart to heart,” he explains, “for 21 seconds.”

I remember Sophie earlier telling us about business colleagues developing meaningful relationships here, and about families learning to hug. It seems to me, we all need to visit Kanatha-aki. After all, wouldn’t the world be a better place if we all learned to hug, heart to heart, for 21 seconds?

A Taste of the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village

Ukrainians brought red fife wheat to Canada and with it they made one of their gastronomic gifts to the world – perogies (which they pronounce perohay). At the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village near Edmonton, Alberta, I learned to make these delicious little dumplings.

After all, food is the best way to learn about people. And a lesson in making perogies (also called pyrohy or varenyky ) is enlightening.

I made two of these little handmade dumplings in the same time my teacher could made a dozen! It’s still hard work and made me appreciate them all the more.

My perogie – before and after!

The Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village, a living history museum, complete with costumed interpreters, offers a glimpse into the world of the first pioneers from this community who arrived in 1892.

They arrived in large groups and settled in east central Alberta from 1892-1930. For $10, the government gave them 10 acres of land which they were required to clear and on which they had to build living quarters.

The first homes were burdei , a sod dwelling rather like a dugout which featured a living roof.

Inside was the bed, an oven for baking and most importantly, a stone mill for grinding that wheat into flour. It’s a tough job as I discovered!

Later more permanent homes were built with a “Big Room” for family and entertaining. The walls are adorned with beautiful hand-woven cloth and photos of the saints, and the ceilings hung with dried flowers and herbs, often blessed by the church.

Their faith was important. At the Village, three churches represent the three main religious groups: Ukrainian Catholics, Ukrainian Orthodox and Greek Orthodox. Services are still occasionally held in this one – Ukrainian Orthodox.

The Hilliard Hotel was the first building to have indoor plumbing. Beer was 5 cents and a bed could be had for $1 per night. But card games weren’t permitted. The only entertainment was the found in the pool hall, which also sold alcohol.

A horse and buggy is a wonderful way to explore the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village, though it’s a great place for enthusiastic walkers….there’s so much to see here.

But I believe the best way to explore a culture is through its food. And what’s better than a Ukrainian feast ?

On this small plate: pyrohy (perogies) with sour cream and fried onions, cucumber salad, Koubasa (sausage), and Holubtsi (cabbage rolls).


Okanagan Apples

An apple a day keeps the doctor away.

That expression is more than 150 years old and apparently originated in Wales, which once grew more than 200 apple varieties! Sounds like a good marketing scheme to me, especially given the less than savoury reputation the fruit got courtesy of Adam and Eve. Continue reading

Surprising Toronto

Toronto's spectacular skyline seen from the deck of the Oriole.

Toronto’s spectacular skyline seen from the deck of the Oriole.

Ask me how to spend a day in Toronto and I’d probably direct you to the Royal Ontario Museum, or the Ontario Science Centre, or the Art Gallery of Ontario. But I spent a day almost entirely outdoors doing some really cool things, all in the GTA. Continue reading

This is How Canadians Do Winter!

The lake is frozen but the welcome is warm at Viamede Resort.

The lake is frozen but the welcome is warm at Viamede Resort.

Let’s face it. Winter in Canada is all about the cold. There’s nothing growing in the garden, the lakes are frozen, and the gloves are on. But Canadians know how to make the best of winter. Continue reading