A Visit with the GrandeParents

Margaret, Anne, Bertha Our last full day in Grande Prairie had been set aside for more school visits and, in particular, we'd figured on a visit to the big new high school, Charles Spencer. For some reason that was not an option. But I was anxious to get out there and share the story and my hosts were keen to deliver so they arranged for visits to two local seniors' residences: the Pioneer Lodge and Wild Rose Manor - both members of the Grande Spirit Foundation for affordable housing.

At Pioneer we set up a makeshift screen in the common room and got a good turnout from residents who came down to see what the fuss was about (we heard one resident ask if it was going to be a political speech!). After spending a week speaking in schools, it certainly is a pleasure to speak to a room full of people to whom I don't have to explain the significance of Paul Henderson's hockey stick! Of course, the other great part is talking with the residents afterwards and hearing their stories and we had a particularly lovely time with the three in this photo, Margaret, Anne and Bertha (pictured left to right). Fourteen-year-old Garion Bell came out and volunteered to play a few tunes and had the residents clapping along and calling for an encore!

From there it was on to the Wild Rose on the south side of town. As we entered past the giant tropical fish tank, garden and indoor fire pit there was a BINGO game going on in the main common area. There was kind of a lounge area off to one side set up with a small projection screen but I saw they had a nice big TV already rigged into the sound system so we re-arranged some furniture and got set up in that corner.

I'm constantly observing that everyone has some connection to Voyageur - whether that's a place that it's come from, a place that it's been, a story in the guitar, a person who's played it, a song sung on it or someone who's had their portrait taken with it. And I don't think I've ever been proven wrong. As we're getting set up, Pearl comes over with her walker to find out what's going on. She is wearing a bright pink T-shirt that declares itself a souvenir of Kuujuaq, Nunavik - home of the very first piece of material I talk about in the presentation (the caribou-antler ulu carved for us by Charlene Watt)!

We had no one to play Voyageur at Wild Rose but I was prepared with the wonderful video I have of Paul O'Brien and the St. Michaels University School Senior Orchestra and Choir performing "Voyageur", the song he wrote for me and the guitar, in Victoria BC. I hadn't seen it for a while and watching all the young folks performing on the screen while sitting with the old folks at the Wild Rose was just too much and had me in floods of tears. And hanging around with some of the residents afterwards and having such lovely chats had me thinking of my own grandparents and of my partner, Sarah, who is currently in Norfolk UK visiting with her own very elderly grandmother. Love to you all.

Thanks to Lindsey McNeil, Adyne Bell, Shari Hrehoruk and the welcoming staff and residents at Pioneer and Wild Rose!

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The Grande Night Out @cfnwab @CommFdnsCanada

Chris McIntyre The model that we've built now over a few series with different Community Foundations in Canada is that the CF does much of the heavy lifting in terms of lining up school and community partners who'd like to have the Six String Nation presentation and then funds or assists the funding of the whole tour. This takes the load of the school district or individual schools from having to coordinate a schedule and travel and accommodations and those kinds of things - though there must always be very active partners in the school or community who help to get teachers, principals and other community groups on board and informed and involved. And we had several of those on this trip that I've mentioned in previous blogs.

So what does the local Community Foundation get out of it? Well, for one thing, not everybody is aware of the vital work Community Foundations do in terms of monitoring the overall health of the community by compiling and aggregating various kinds of research and metrics on things like health, poverty, economic diversity, social issues and more into their annual Vital Signs reports and then encouraging, directing, managing and coordinating various kinds of individual and corporate giving with different charities and services in the region, so a Six String Nation school and community tour becomes a way for them to reach out to local school districts and community service providers to give them the opportunity to bring in something that most individual schools or senior's residences or volunteer organizations couldn't bring in on their own. And it helps build those relationships so they become aware of the other ways that CFs might be able to help in the community. For another, they typically organize these tours to coincide with their own fundraising efforts or other special events so that they're kind of getting me to their event as part of a bundle. And last night was the Community Foundation of Northwestern Alberta's annual "Nourish the North" fundraising gala. It's a chance for them to wine and dine their ongoing sponsors and donors, attract potential new donors, raise some more awareness and raise additional funds through the auction and silent auction and that kind of thing. It's always struck me that the work of the Community Foundations embraces the kind of view of the interconnectedness of a community that is fundamental to the whole Six String Nation project so it feels like a very natural fit.

One of the main things the Six String Nation project was designed to do is to challenge some of the divisions that some political forces are determined to maintain between regions of Canada - stoking various resentments and animosities - and open a more inclusive conversation about who we are as Canadians from a thousand and one different perspectives. Perhaps not surprisingly, people are always offering me warnings about the kind of reception I might receive in Alberta. Now, first of all I should say that no province has invited me back more often than Alberta, no province has incorporated Six String Nation into school curriculae more than Alberta and no province has been more welcoming and hospitable than Alberta. Between the looming election and the Blue Jays advance in the playoffs and the news of the day, I've had many many political conversations with all kinds of people the week that I've been here and I can tell you that the range of opinion and the depth of feeling for our sense of community and nation is as diverse and nuanced here in the same way it is in any part of Canada. Last night I had one (good natured) heckle for my mention of the inclusion of Pierre Trudeau's canoe paddle in Voyageur and three people who came up afterwards during the photo opportunity asking to feel for it inside the sound hole. All of this is proof to me that, as Canadians, there is so much that we share in common and that efforts to find and aggravate divisions between us are cynical and misplaced.

I started my presentation after a delightful round of drinks and appetizers and for the "performance pocket" we welcomed three players to the stage. The youngest, James Morrison is studying voice and performance at a local college and he opened up the musical portion of the presentation. He's predominantly a piano player but proved perfectly capable on guitar as well and I think he's going to excel at school. Next up, Clyde Blackburn braved a shortened rendition of Gordon Lightfoot's "Railroad Trilogy". Clyde's date for the evening was his mother, Pam, visiting from Newmarket Ontario. They were both equally charming and delightful to meet. And finally, local musician, producer, studio owner, composer and guitar teacher Chris McIntyre - who had also provided background music on his own guitar for the earlier part of the evening - came out from his spot off to the side and up on the stage with Voyageur to perform an original, "Cottage By the Lake" - an ode to a family place with special meaning for him in Clear Lake, Manitoba. Chris is an extremely accomplished guitar player but I was especially struck by his voice. I have no idea if power ballads are in his repertoire as a musician or producer but it seemed to me he could hit those high notes with the best of them!

. Thanks once again to Tracey and Vince Vavrek and all the staff and volunteer support who made this event such a glittering success. A very special thanks to Lindsey McNeil from CFNWAB who handled book sales and to the volunteers from ATB Financial who did all the serving and bussing!

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A Grande Day Out #3.1 @cfnwab

Olivia, Blake, Emily and Xander Nick Radujko is assistant superintendent for the Grande Prairie Public School District - host of all but one of my school visits this trip - but when he picked me up this morning he instantly declared himself my driver and roadie for our trip to GP Composite High School - insisting on carrying everything! We arrived and it was another unconventional set up for a school presentation (ie. not in the gym) and I was a bit concerned that with the cafeteria line so close it might be a little unfocussed but it was a tremendously focussed group of students who filled that room. Fantastic.

Our guitar-constant for this trip, Jason Peters was there again today but more to encourage some of his guitar students to take the opportunity to help fill the performance pocket near the end of the presentation. Pictured left to right, Olivia Burns, Blake Reynolds, Emily Radujko (yes, Nick's daughter) and Xander Forgie all did a great job - and as most people know by now, I love to hear people doing original compositions and Blake came through on that front with a beauty.

We stuck around for a fair bit after the presentation as many students and staff came up to take pictures with Voyageur while others headed back to class and others into the french fry line up in the cafeteria. As we were about to pack up, the social studies teacher came up and told me that his class was already inspired and energized in conversations about the presentation and notions of Canadian identity. Mission accomplished!

Thanks to principal Dennis Vobeyda for his very supportive welcome to the school and to the rest of the staff and students at GP Composite.
And thanks again to my swing gang of Jayme and Dwayne (minus Brian today) for handling all the tech with ease.

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A Detour on the Road to Rycroft @cfnwab @RonSexsmith (not)

Sexsmith Station Once we were finished saying goodbye at the Bridge Network Outreach School in the morning, Jason Peters handed me off into the care of Bob Stewart while the Swing Gang swung into action loading Bob's truck with all the A/V gear for our trip up the road to Rycroft - about 40 minutes north of GP.

Bob is a supervisor for GP's neighbouring Peace-Wapiti School District and Rycroft School is one of the schools in his bailiwick. I was really enjoying the conversation and the drive with Bob when I saw the community of Sexsmith off the highway a little bit to the west. There is a photo print of one of the giant grain elevators of Sexsmith on the wall of my hotel room and I was curious to see it close up. Bob seemed to be a bit of a fan of the town and said we had lots of time to make a quick side trip so off we went.

Like some of those quaint New England towns or even Dawson City, Yukon - where strict attention is paid to development, commercial and streetscape rules in order to preserve the original character of a place - Sexsmith looks almost like a movie set of a Canadian prairie town from the turn of the last century. In the early 20th century, Sexsmith was the grain capital of the British Empire and the remaining elevator is a testament to that heritage. For additional colour and character, an old CN caboose sits on a siding in front of the disused but lovingly restored train station next to the elevator (pictured).

From there we resumed our drive and our conversation continuing up the road to Rycroft where we were greeted by principal Julie Hynes. Set up was a little more complicated without the GP tech guys (or maybe they just made me lazy) but we were up and running on time to present to a small group of younger students and some visitors from the surrounding community - including one young woman who told me she discovered Six String Nation online while researching how to build her own guitar!

Students Jessie and Manuel got the music started before handing off to teacher Ms. Zutter.

Bob had me back at the hotel in time to do a little work, have a late lunch and watch the Blue Jays seal the series against the Texas Rangers in what was possibly the most riveting game of baseball played in this century. Seriously!

Thanks to everyone for today's school presentations and a very special thanks to Community Foundation of Northwestern Alberta alumni Brent and Cindy Oilund and Leonard and Linda Scharbach for treating me to a lovely and unexpected post-game dinner out!

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Another Grande Day Out… on the Bridge @cfnwab

Jamie Soles First of all, let me say how grateful I am that my hotel room at the Holloway Inn & Suites here in Grande Prairie has a proper kitchen so I could start the day with my own coffee and a proper omelette. A little taste of home and both necessary to fortify for a long day ahead!

Once breakfast was done, Jason Peters swung by to pick me up to take me to our first engagement of the day at the Bridge Network Outreach School. Bridge is a kind of alternative high school that actually reminded me of my old public school, Ranchdale - an open plan with a few satellite rooms built off of a main common work area. So it was nice not to present in a gym for a change but rather in a kind of calm and quiet atmosphere with a small group of very focussed students. In the bigger spaces you kind of rely on the mic technology to help deliver a more intimate tone but here it was built right into the environment.

We had two guitar players slated to play in the performance pocket - one of them being Jason, for whom Bridge is another school on his guitar-program circuit in GP, and the other being Jamie Soles (pictured), the dad of a couple of Bridge students. Jason opted to let Jamie go first and once Jamie got started we were both content to just let him go. He did several numbers including a beautifully rendered version of one of my Bruce Cockburn favourities: "All the Diamonds". He was brilliant! But elusive. I was hoping to get a shot of him and his kids - both of whom seemed pretty exceptional in their own ways - but he slipped away before we had the chance. Nonetheless, Jamie - if you're reading this - thanks for a very memorable performance!

Thanks also to rest of the staff and students at Bridge Network and my swing gang of Jayme, Dwayne and Brian for having everything set up and ready to go for when we arrived!

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A Grande Week Out – Day 1.2 @cfnwab @gppsd2357

James, Lexie and Jason Over years of doing multimedia presentations in schools across Canada, I've become pretty accustomed to arriving 30 or 40 minutes in advance and working with the resident staff or student A/V geek to figure out their own unique tech set up. There's a real range of qualities of gear and expertise from one school to the next. One of George Hall's innovations for our tour with the Community Foundation of Southwest Alberta this time last year was to at least rent the wireless headset mic and carry it from school to school. That really helped solve a consistency problem and Dave Fletcher opted for the same targeted rental in Vernon last month. This morning, we actually didn't have any tech at all when we arrived at Crystal Park because of yesterday's holiday and the fact that the gear rental place wasn't open until after we were due to start. But it was not a problem at all. Crystal re-arranged the start time to suit and soon after 10, three guys showed up with everything from mics to stands to projector, screen and sundry cables and set it all up in very short order. Even better is the fact that they struck it all when we were done, packed it up and set it all up again at this afternoon's venue, Alexander Forbes School before Jason and I even got there! It's like I have my own "swing gang". That's a formula that's going to be tough to beat! In fact, I'll be seeing Jayme Miller, Dwayne Wynnychuk and Brian Cripps quite a bit over the next couple of days here in Grande Prairie. Thanks for all your help, guys!

Guitar teacher Jason Peters (pictured, right) repeated his performance from this morning, joined in the performance segment by student Lexie Warren and teacher James Hudyma.

Thanks to principal Terry Gorgichuk and all the students and staff at Alexander Forbes.
Thanks also to Community Foundation CEO Tracey Vavrek and her husband Vince who took me out for dinner and some lively and fascinating conversation - continuing the warm welcome I've received here in GP so far!

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A Grande Week Out – Day 1.1 @cfnwab @gppsd2357

Jason, Alexis and Jessica Getting to Grande Prairie should have been simple. And all was going beautifully until the pilot interrupted my viewing of "Ant Man" about half an hour into the Toronto-Edmonton leg of the journey to announce that some troubling (but not "concerning") issues with an engine were enough to prompt a return to Toronto. Not a big deal - Air Canada was super prepared with a duplicate plane a couple of gates away and the transition was a piece of cake but for the fact that I would miss my connection to GP as a result. And the subsequent flight out of Edmonton was filled so I'd have to content myself to watch nearly 8 hours of baseball in the lounge waiting for a flight that would deliver me by midnight. Not so bad, really. First world problems and all that.

So I didn't get the sleep I was hoping for last night, I didn't have a rental car and was light on tech and travel details about this morning's first school visit to Crystal Park. But my concerns (not troubles) evaporated when Jason Peters arrived at the hotel to whisk me off to Crystal. Jason (pictured, left) was a math and science teacher for a decade in the Grande Prairie school system when he started a guitar program that soon proved so popular that they built a job around it. Now, he travels to six different schools in the district over the course of the week delivering a music program that draws kids from several grades. So not only was he familiar with both schools on today's itinerary as a teacher, but he'd also be the anchor guitar player for the performance segment at each of the presentations.

Jason's performance of a couple of Tragically Hip tunes (with a little Eddie Vedder thrown in) was supplemented by music from two of his students: Alexis Tan (holding Voyageur) and Jessica Mandrusiak (right).

The presentation was a pleasure and Tracey Vavrek and Lindsey McNeil from the Community Foundation of Northwestern Alberta (or hosts for this little tour) came by so we could finally meet face to face after all these months of emails!

Thanks so much to principal Charlene Ungstad and the rest of the staff and students at Crystal for being a great audience and giving me the adrenaline lift I needed after yesterday's travails.

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Drawing Pictures Outside the Lines @axismundifest

Josée Zimanyi takes a break Of course I try to document all of our activities with Voyageur at schools, conferences, festivals, clubs and community appearances here on the blog and add some colourful detail from each location but so much of the most rewarding (but least tangible) parts of the experience come when the spotlight is off - when the character of a place and it's impact on me and the project has its most profound effect. I already alluded to the wonder of simply driving up here to Revelstoke from Vernon for the Axis Mundi Festival but there's a whole lot more that really added to my appreciation of this trip.

I've already written about Revelstoke's favourite resident Noo Yawker, Bob Gardali who volunteered to shepherd me at the meet-and-greets and on to the presentation at RPAC but I really can't say enough about how great it was to hang around with him and share some stories and laughs. Normally, when I'm doing that kind of thing I'm just sort of sitting there with the guitar talking to people and offering it to them to play. This time, Bob was there sharing in the conversation and endlessly picking out bluegrass forms between hand-offs to members of the public. While there are quite a few artists who have played Voyageur for extended periods of time in performance, in rehearsal or at recording sessions, for sheer duration I'm not sure many could top Bob, who was more or less constantly picking during the eight hours we spent together over the course of two days.

Larry Davidson at D'Addario Canada has been such a stalwart supporter of the Six String Nation since the very beginning and I continue to be grateful for all the extra effort he exerts for the benefit of this project and so many Canadian artists. I noticed far too late that I had run out of 6SN guitar picks to present to school kids and artists as souvenirs of their experience and when Larry couldn't personally move the process of replenishing the supply along any faster on the U.S. side he made sure I had other guitar picks and pick holders to hand out - as well as fresh strings and a replacement guitar cable. The man is a prince and his family and his staff in Markham ON are all pretty loveable too.

Larry is also the guy who first cued me to Walk Off the Earth long before they were a hit and suggested I should hook up with them. Of course, when they took off all of a sudden it was that much harder to connect with them but it came together here in Revelstoke so thanks to the band for inviting me into the dressing room after the show and to Hugo & Co. from the festival for setting it all up.

While I was hanging around backstage chatting with Salmon Arm R&B familiars Tori Jewell and her mother Diane I was approached by Kelly and Blu Hopkins - local musicos. On two or three different occasions over the last couple of days the subject of Scott Cook's song "Pass It Along" as one that seems to have been practically written for Voyageur and yet I still hadn't heard it. It's pretty noisy back there but as Blu picks up Voyageur and starts to sing, some fragment of lyric breaks through the din with the help of Blu's deep Stan Rogers-esque vocal and I quickly realize what I'm finally hearing. Scott - next time I'm in Edmonton we must get together. Kelly and Blu - thank you for that.

The nylon pouch I've been carrying around since 2006 to hold my D.I. box and guitar cable had effectively fallen apart a couple of years ago but I continued to struggle with it and make do just because I was too lazy and broke to do anything about it. When I arrived in Revelstoke the main street was closed for the outdoor market and one of the first vendors I saw (after the one with the amazing radishes!) was Trevor Kehler's U.S.E.D. (Unlimited Supplies from Everyone's Discards) booth offering a variety of bags, pouches and backpacks made from recycled car seatbelts. There was nothing on display that quite fit my needs so he offered to head home at day's end and make me the right bag to deliver later on. Problem solved - it's perfect! He actually couldn't deliver the bag himself while we were holding court at the Bakeshop so his friend Marla dropped it off and became an instant fan of the project - and even submitted to a few photos in spite of her intense camera shyness. The technology aversion is understandable given that she's been living off the grid for over a decade and kayaks to work. Thank you Marla and Trevor!

Speaking of the Bakeshop, I can see why Hugo wanted us to plant ourselves there for Saturday and part of Sunday: it's a popular spot. At times there was a line-up out the door but it moved quickly thanks to co-proprietors Josée Zimanyi (pictured) and Kevan McCroy and their staff. Not only did they keep coffees topped up for me and Bob, Josée even made special cookies in honour of our visit and, when she sensed that my voice was starting to give out, made me a perfect hot ginger elixir in a souvenir Modern Bakeshop Café thermo-mug! She also provided me with two of their delectable "Speed Balls" - concoctions of cocoa, peanut butter, honey and various seeds - that will be fortification for the drive to Kelowna I have to begin in about six hours! Thanks for the amazing hospitality.

And what more can I say about festival founder Hugo Rampen, his wife Gail and their whole team? I'm grateful for their ongoing support and belief in the project. This project of theirs is a new one and it's very ambitious - a festival that combines music, lectures, markets and outdoor activities. Unfortunately, the weather was a bit uncooperative but the bones of this AxisMundi thing are really good and I hope it will grow into a big success for them. For the time being, Hugo will have to give up his dumptruck but I'm pretty sure he'd agree it was all worth it.

I also got to see some familiar faces on this trip:
My old friend Popo Murigande (aka Jacques Murigande, aka Mighty Popo) is one of Six String Nation's most stalwart champions. Formerly based in Ottawa, the erstwhile member of the famed African Guitar Summit left his grown daughter to finish her degree at UVIC on her own and returned to his ancestral home of Rwanda to start the KigaliUp Festival and a music school. He and Hugo also go way back and Hugo managed to lure Popo and a group of his students here to take part in the festival and embark on a tour of area schools. I managed to find Popo near the back of the muddy pitch at the top of the Revelstoke ski resort while the rain pelted down and Walk Off the Earth rocked the crowd. It was a soggy but great reunion.

And finally, Severn Cullis-Suzuki was the speaker who followed me at RPAC today. We had met back at the Edge of the World Festival in Tlell, Haida Gwaii back in 2008. She lives there and was getting married that weekend so she had a full schedule of preparations and celebrations but she made time to come out and meet Voyageur and have a portrait taken. We managed to share a few words as I came off stage today and she prepared to go on, which was nice. Later, I saw her checking in at my hotel as I returned from a final coffee with Bob. And as I headed to the bar with my laptop to order a burger and a glass of wine and start work on this blog, there she was all dressed up for a hike and getting final trail directions from the desk staff. Boy did I feel like a sloth. But hey, I'm doing this for you, dear reader!

Thanks again to Revelstoke and all at Axis Mundi - here's to a promising start!

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Day 2, Revelstoke @axismundifest

Andy & Dominique The Modern Bakeshop and Café is normally closed on Sundays but they stayed open today as one of the AxisMundi Festival downtown sites, which meant another meet and greet opportunity at our perch in the front window. I arrived early and was already set up by the time my new pal Bob Gardali showed up and we resumed our steady conversation from yesterday. Neither of us is short of a few stories so it was another extremely agreeable morning with people coming through to meet Voyageur and get a quick tour or various snippets of story or take a turn playing - though it was a much shorter schedule today since we had to head out at noon to get set up at the Revelstoke Performing Arts Centre - a recent addition to the local high school.

Mariam Manley's official title at RPAC is Theatre Manager. So, not surprisingly, she greeted us upon arrival and showed us into the venue. At that point she became Technical Director and grip - got the screen down, visuals checked, mics rigged, sound checked and everything. Then she became emcee and introduced me for the presentation!

Soon after he invited me to come up to Revelstoke for the festival a few months ago, Festival Director Hugo Rampen suggested to me that the "performance pocket" of my presentation be filled by Dominique Fraissard - one of a seemingly endless number of Australian transplants in the region. He had previously met Voyageur at the Salmon Arm Roots and Blues Festival back in 2009 but this would be his first opportunity to perform with it and do so in the context of the full presentation. Generously, he chose to share that opportunity with a fellow Aussie, Andy Gordon - aka "Uncle Jorfy". Andy started off on Voyageur and Dominique added vocal harmonies to a gorgeous version of the traditional "Wild Mountain Thyme". Dominique continued with the piece Hugo had suggested: "The Cream" - a loop-pedal and FX pedal tour de force with brilliant lyrics. Sadly, the version linked here is not on Voyageur but you can use your imagination.

Thanks to both musicians and to everyone who came out and offered their support at RPAC!

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Revelatory Experiences

BobGardali Had the first spatters of rain this trip as I left Vernon in the early morning - aiming to hit Revelstoke by 9:00am. I could easily have extended that drive time by a couple of hours pulling off to marvel at the sheer beauty of it - though one of the most beautiful stretches was watching the seemingly endless freight train weave under the highway through the mountain passes as I drove.

To tell the truth, I wasn't quite clear what was expected of me upon arrival. When I let my old friend Hugo Rampen know I was coming to Vernon, he invited me to come up the road and be part of the inaugural edition of his brand new Axis Mundi Festival. He has me slotted in to give the presentation tomorrow but for today he just penciled me in to hang out with Voyageur at the Modern Bakeshop and Cafe and just talk to people. And he recruited a volunteer to hang with me. Quite honestly, the idea of hanging out at a café for five hours with a volunteer and no particular agenda as "programming" struck me as a little bit odd and potentially uncomfortable. It turned out to be one of the most enjoyable experiences I've had in a long while and the time just flew by. My volunteer was a self-proclaimed "guitar nut" named Bob Gardali (pictured). Bob is a native Long Islander who landed in Revelstoke in 1972 after a stint in Quebec and ended up working as a conductor on the CPR and never left. Like so many New Yorkers, there's a kind of pleasure taken in language and he's still got most of his lon-guyland drawl, which made him extra fun to talk to. We talked guitars, music, politics, travel, economics, photography and more for what ended up at six hours - taking time to chat and take pictures with the various folks who came by to see what we were up to (and there were quite a few folks who already knew about Voyageur and came up to get a closer look) while Bob more or less constantly picked out bluegrass riffs on the guitar and got a real feel for the instrument and its innate character. Man, what a terrific and entertaining guy to spend a day with. I'm looking forward to doing it again tomorrow - though on a shorter schedule as we'll head off to the Performing Arts Centre around noon to get set for the presentation.

Special thanks to the staff at the Bakeshop who kept us caffeinated and even baked special cookies for the occasion! See you tomorrow.

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