Window snowflakesFor our first Christmas together since leaving Korea, Amy and I headed back to Winnipeg for a mini-reunion with the Canadian side of the family. I opted to take the bus again (the cost of the train approaching that of a taxi), and managed to have a relatively restful couple of nights chugging over the top of Lake Superior with only a few books and a copy of Plants vs. Zombies on Amy’s iPod. I had hoped to see some wildlife, but had to be content with a fleeting glimpse of a fox and the bus driver’s account of the time he hit a moose and caused $20,000 worth of damage to his vehicle.

Above left: Snowflakes on a car window, Winnipeg. Below left: The frozen Red River at King’s Park, Winnipeg.

Frozen riverWe only had a few days to spend in Winnipeg, but managed to get out to the farm to see how the slightly-larger kids were doing. We were greeted outside by an enormous and winter-coated Kiska, who had been given the freedom to roam around the yard and seek attention from anyone who ventured outdoors, and inside by kids #3 and #4, who wanted little more than to run laps around the house.

Upon our return to Ontario (my journey made a little less bearable by an entirely-avoidable three-hour delay on the bus), we had a mini-second Christmas with a pile of packages from my family in the UK and rewarded a year of hard work (90 % Amy’s) with a long-promised Xbox (which randomly freezes when playing Assassin’s Creed, but there are plenty of other games). Expect an upturn in gaming-related posts in 2011.

Assiniboine Steller's sea eagleWith our departure from Winnipeg almost upon us, Amy and I managed to fit in another visit with Rita and Kids #3 and #4 at Assiniboine Park Zoo. In general, I have decidedly mixed feelings about keeping animals in captivity – but there was educational value aplenty for the kids, who unexpectedly got to pet a corn snake in addition to seeing most of the zoo’s residents. Quite a bit of the place was under renovation or reconstruction (including the polar bear enclosure following the death of Debby in 2008), but many of the animals were braving the hideous heat to see whether any of the visitors were bringing food. Armed with only a 50 mm lens, I was unable to get much Canadian Geographic-worthy material but had the usual fun with fences and PMMA sheeting.

Assiniboine reindeer (caribou)Assiniboine lion

Assiniboine saddle-billed storkAssiniboine meerkat

Dugald night skyEvery summer, debris from the Swift-Tuttle comet enters the Earth’s atmosphere and burns up, producing the Perseid meteor shower. Eager to see some shooting stars (which are not stars at all), Amy and I headed out to Dugald and the relatively clear air on the farm. We braved the mosquitoes until the wee hours, saw several meteors (peak activity is usually just before dawn, but we had things to accomplish the following day and didn’t stay up that late) and failed to capture any of them on camera (mostly due to very long image processing times for long exposures). In the picture to your left, you may be able to make out the constellations Cassiopeia in the top right, and Perseus just below it. The cookies pictured below are unrelated to meteor showers, and were baked to send to Amy’s grandparents. For those unfamiliar with imperial cookies, they consist of two sugar cookies stuck together with raspberry jam, iced with almond-flavoured icing and finished with a piece of glace cherry (very similar to Bakewell tarts, fr British readers).

Imperial cookies (1)Imperial cookies (2)

Folklorama beerEvery year, the city of Winnipeg puts on Folklorama – a two-week showcase of all the cultures in the city that can find enough people representing those cultures to put on a show. Amy and I headed out to the Mexican Pavilion last week, and found them offering a tour of Mexico’s regions through the medium of interpretive dance. Unfortunately, we couldn’t understand anything that was said over the PA system and so had to enjoy the dance moves and specially-brewed beer without any background information.

Folklorama Mexico (3)Folklorama Mexico (4)

Folklorama Mexico (1)Folklorama Mexico (2)

Lockport pelicansCanada has about one holiday (federal or provincial) per month, and when the August Civic Holiday rolled around Amy and I headed for the beach. Although Winnipeg is about 600 miles from the sea (Hudson Bay, to the north-east), the Great Lakes are of such immense size that they have sand, waves, tides and everything else one would expect from their oceanic equivalents. Lake Winnipeg is about the size of Sardinia, though is so shallow (mean depth: 12 m) that you can walk out for ages before being forced to swim. I contented myself with walking out to some of the sandbars (scattering minnows and a wary pelican) and tossing a Frisbee around, perhaps over-concerned about a) the hole in the ozone layer and b) leeches.

On our way back to the city, we stopped off at Lockport (site of a dam on the Red River and thus a magnet for water birds) and Birds Hill (a much more crowded provincial park, with an artificial beach). The dam and lock at Lockport were full of American White Pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) jockeying for position on the waterfall, and people trying to catch the fish that got past them. We also came across a juvenile finch or grackle who hadn’t yet learned to stay away from humans, and more sunbathers than could be counted.

Patricia Beach (1)Patricia Beach (2)

Lockport finch (2)Lockport finch (1)

Push ItMuch like Edinburgh, Winnipeg hosts a Fringe Festival every year to celebrate and disseminate less-traditional theatre and performance acts. Amy and I made it a point to get out to some of the shows, and at the same time discovered delicious $1 bite-sized “cakettes” from Cake-ology, the city’s premier cake bakery. We took a little bit of a risk by going on the opening night, as nothing had been reviewed yet and some shows inevitably turn out to be terrible. However, Dale Beaner and the Turtle Boy (a part-improv comedy about dysfunctional father-son relationships) turned out to be excellent.

Left: A brass band performs Push It on a street corner.

Rob Firenix (2)On our second trip, having consulted various reviews, we took in Sparks – a romantic comedy that turned out to be entertaining but not completely enjoyable due to the lead character being a gigantic jerk. And speaking of gigantic jerks, we caught part of a Rob Firenix performance while walking back to the centre of activities. While his show had some interesting elements (the fire whip being the most notable), it wasn’t particularly original and consisted of 5-10 minutes of talking for each minute of actually doing something. He also had the gall to demand the full 60-minute show price ($10) after incessantly mocking and belittling the audience, perhaps forgetting that he was performing on the free stage.

Left: Rob Firenix pretends to burn himself for $$$.

The Secondhandpants (1)On the last day of the Fringe, we went to pay a visit to the much-anticipated Secondhandpants‘s Science Folktion Musical Adventure. The musicians generally play in a phone booth-sized jukebox which kids can put coins into to hear a live song, but the stage show includes sci-fi story elements (such as time travel and cryptozoology) and extra characters (such as Prof. Malomar Garfield and Rocket John). I spent a good portion of one of the scenes trying to identify the components of the Sellout 2000 machine, and absolutely loved the retro feel of the story and props.

Left: The Secondhandpants. Below, left to right: The Sellout 2000 in action, Space Robot performs; Lif-Tor and the Time Travel Guitar, Rocket John takes the Secondhandpants to the future; The Man From Space meets the Birdman, the Secondhandpants meet Sass Quatch; The Secondhandpants, Rob Firenix, Sass Quatch.

Selling OutSpace Robot

Lif-TorRocket John

BirdmanSass and the Pants

The Secondhandpants (2)Rob Firenix (1)Sass Quatch

Tinkertown bumper carsOn the outskirts of Winnipeg, utterly inaccessible by public transport, is a child-specific theme park called Tinkertown – a world of pure imagination pint-sized rides and areas with maximum height restrictions. Amy and I had a day off, and decided to take Kid #3 and Kid #4 out there to give Rita and Duane some peace and quiet give them a change of scenery and see how they liked the activities. Once the initial terror (of temporary separation from the adults and the entire concept of a “ride”) had subsided, they were happy to explore a new play structure and peer from the Ferris wheel (which was actually more terrifying for me and Amy). Rita joined us later in the day, cueing a second round of their favourite attractions and a lift home for dinner.

Tinkertown Ferris wheelTinkertown train

Dugald showerTeenage Kiska

U of M squirrelWith almost all of my family in Winnipeg for a visit, Amy and I decided to show them some of Canada’s more confineable animals at Forth Whyte Alive, Winnipeg’s premier nature interpretive centre. Right from the start, we were rewarded with some unusual encounters – a painted turtle (Chrysemys picta) had decided to camp out just next to where we’d parked, and the bison (Bison bison bison) herd was uncharacteristically close to the viewing fence. The black-tailed prairie dog (Cynomys ludovicianus) colony was also in fine form, digging and scampering for the enjoyment of the visitors. As an added bonus, the weekend turned out to contain International Trails Day and entry was free!

Painted turtleFort Whyte prairie dog

Fort Whyte Bison (1)Fort Whyte Bison (2)

Minneapolis MobileAfter much preparation and seed-mixing, spring planting was over in the short space of a few (long) days and fingers were crossed for good weather (subsequent weather: torrential rain). Kiska and the kids have been growing (physically and developmentally) in leaps and bounds, and there have been some new additions to the animals in the form of turkey and chicken chicks. The idea is that they will form self-sustaining flocks that can be used for eggs and meat – kid #3, as usual, has some thought on foodstuffs:

We don’t chew on people, but we do chew on drinks. And food. But we don’t chew on cups.

There also appears to be some confusion about the difference between food and colour:

Kid #3: The bowl is white! And the spoon is white too.
Me: The spoon is silver.
Kid #3: Silver? Or spinach?

Post-cultivationCo-Op disker (1)

Co-Op disker (2)Evening planting

Right on schedule, kid #4 is also beginning to learn basic deception. During a recent car journey, he decided that he’d had enough of being cooped up inside and shouted, “All done!” to indicate this. When a stop was not forthcoming, he shifted strategy to, “Poop! POOP!”, which had the desired result – nobody wants to be trapped in a confined space with an infant with a full nappy. As soon as the car drew to a halt, he perked up with an, “Ah, outside?” and, of course, there turned out to be no poop at all.

In WWOOFing activities for the past week or two, the major construction project that is the kids’ play structure continues and has now reached the stage where it needs more than one person to continue (i.e. some of the walls need holding up while supporting pieces of wood are bolted into place). As part of this general project, we are fencing in the front yard and thus creating a much-needed place where the kids can run around lightly supervised and not get into trouble with the road, dog, ditch, tractors, coyotes, doors, bears etc.

Hot on the heels of deception, kid #3 inadvertently picked up disrespect (though we are fairly certain that she didn’t know that that’s what she was doing). In her eagerness to show off a small scab on her middle finger (caused by said finger getting nipped in a door), she comprehensively flipped her grandmother, who had dropped in for a short visit, off. I was also given a short lesson in speaking clearly after dinner one day, when kid #3 enquired as to my activities:

Kid #3: John, what are you doing?
Me: I’m going to tidy up.
Kid #3: You’re going to tie me up?

We haven’t quite started spring planting yet here, but ground preparation and equipment maintenance is well under way (on organic farms, it’s better to wait for the first growth of weeds so they can be ploughed under and the actual crop gets a competitive advantage – chemical farms can just plant anytime and spray weedkiller). In preparation for some experimental crop combinations, I was given the opportunity to go out to the test field and take soil samples for pre-planting nutrient/mineral analysis – quite different from my usual forte of doing the actual analyses in the lab. I made a quick sampling plan, loaded up the quad and set out to mark the field divisions with stakes (there are four different areas to analyse). This would have been quite straightforward with a GPS system, but as we don’t have one I borrowed a measuring wheel and, driving the quad with one hand, leaned out to run it along the ground whilst riving in a roughly straight line. This worked pretty well until I hit a rock, which knocked the wheel out of my hand and under the quad (it still works, though there is a noticeable crack and the wheel is a bit more wobbly).

With the field mapped out, I turned to the actual sampling. We had decided upon ten samples per quadrant, and each quadrant was a little less than a quarter of a mile on each side (between 900 and 1100 feet), so I had quite a bit of in-field driving and stake-locating to do. I was using a hand auger about 8 " long to sample to a depth of 24 ", which would have been quite easy if the soil had not been almost 100 % clay – not only did clods of earth stick to the actual sample, but it was hard to pull up and rather difficult to remove the sample from the blades. What made the work truly awkward, though, was a constant light rain and wind – I was warm and dry thanks to appropriate clothing, but everything I was using instantly developed a thin layer of clay and became incredibly slippery. Fortunately, it does wash off.

Kid #4 has a few particular fascinations, one of which is opening and closing doors. This can sometimes lead to perilous situations, such as the time he was playing with the door to the deck, tried to walk down the stairs to the lawn and got his head stuck. These days, he never tires of playing with the chain-link fence gate to Kiska’s run, which of course has a self-closing latch. He therefore need to be closely supervised to prevent minor tantrums when he locks himself in/out and has to deal with both an immovable door and Kiska bounding all over him. I try and use these times to teach him how to ask for help politely, e.g.:

Kid #4: (shakes fence) ELLLP! OUUUT! (translation: Help! I want to come out!)
Me: Out, please!
Kid #4: (shakeshakeshake) AWEEEEESS! (translation: Please!)
Me: Out, please! (At this point, compassion usually prevails and he is released from his self-made prison)