Friday, July 31, 2009

A Day At the Peace Gardens

I had to pay $10 to get into the Peace Gardens in order to drop my daughter off at Music Camp. Since I was already there I figured I might as well get my money's worth. I've already mentioned I'm somewhat of a map freak so I obtained a map of the park from the entrance gate and after saying goodbye to my daughter. I drove off to explore.

I apologize these aren't the most stunning photos. But I have to admit, for cheap (free after rebate) cell phone pictures, they're not horrible. Photography has never been one of my talents. I really don't take pictures if I can avoid it. Still, they didn't turn out too badly considering the tiny device in my pocket that took them with no fancy lenses or anything.

I've only ever been to the Peace Gardens once in my life and that was on a church youth group skiing trip to Bottineau. As you might imagine, if I was on a ski trip, it would not be the best time of year to observe the flora and fauna of this park. I really didn't see it at it's best, and as an immature teenager, didn't really appreciate the displays and history that went into this place.

So I was really seeing this park for the first time. I was going to squeeze every penny out of my ten dollars. My first stop was a hiking trail. I grew up camping and fishing and roaming the wilderness and going off the beaten trail. I don't do much (or any) off-road hiking these days. My wife doesn't care for bugs and my kids don't really either. So the most walking we ever do is on asphalt walking paths and precious little of that.

I picked the trail with the shortest distance (mustn't overdo it you know?) and drove to the parking lot at the trail head. Along the way, I spotted the Ducks Unlimited wetland contribution you see above. This is another testament to my less than stellar photography skills. When I drove by, there were two of the cutest, most picturesque mallard ducks you've ever seen floating on the water.

I drove by thinking I should take a picture. Then I drove further until I finally made up my mind to stop. By the time I walked back to the wetland. (This part of the park is a one-way road so I couldn't really back up the vehicle and it had taken me a long time to make up my mind to stop) The ducks had flown the coop so to speak. So you'll have to use your imagination to manufacture a couple of ducks in the water.

After getting over the tragedy of a missed photo-op, I parked and locked the van and set off on my expedition. Hiking in the woods isn't as fun as I remembered. It was very, very bug infested. Vicious exposed tree roots would reach out and trip me up when I wasn't paying attention. I was constantly swatting these huge mosquitoes the size of which could probably carry off a small child. I have read way too many fiction/fantasy/horror novels and thought at any second an alien or zombie was going to jump out and grab me. About the time my mind was really conjuring some impressive monsters I walked through a spider web that had been constructed across the path. At face-level no less. The whole rest of the hike I was peeling cobweb off my face and arms and swatting blood-suckers at the same time.

I made it out alive sans a few pints of bodily fluids and got back to my vehicle. I will strongly re-think any future ideas to go hiking. That was not a fun excursion.

I got a laugh when I was walking to my van. An elderly couple had parked next to me and were doing a tail-gate picnic. The man was busy building some very impressive Dagwood sandwiches and the wife asked if I'd been out hiking. I said indeed I was, and she asked if it was worth it. I said if you like mosquitoes and spiders. The man looked up from his sandwich preparation as if I was his saving angel. "Thank you!" he said to me. I'm guessing I just saved this nice man a trip through the woods. All in a days work.

My next stop was the central boulevard which you usually see on the postcards. This I really enjoyed. I started at the North end by the peace towers. Pretty impressive concrete monuments. I never knew the history behind them. 2 towers are in Canada and 2 are in the USA. They are linked in pairs symbolizing unity and friendship with similar though separate goals. I learned the 4,000 mile border between our two countries is the longest undefended border in the world. Given all the strife going on today, I was particularly moved by that little piece of trivia.

I went into the Peace chapel and read all the quotes from various famous people over the world. Abraham Lincoln really did have some marvelous things to say. I was also intrigued by the old newspapers from several different countries telling of the Sept. 11, 2001 plane attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. I stood in that chapel for quite some time reflecting on that terrible day. I still remember the day it happened sitting in my old office cubicle at work and listening to news reports all day long. I wasn't very productive that day.

It was interesting that the next place I stopped at was a display made of some girders from the WTC structure that were recovered. It seems I was meant to spend a bit more time reflecting on that day.

I continued walking down the boulevard. There was quite a few flowers in bloom but I was amazed how much was not or still waiting to be planted. They must have gotten a late start with planting like much of North Dakota this year with the wet Spring we had. Still, it was a lot greener than it was when I last visited in the middle of Winter.

If I would have known who to ask, I would have questioned why they had the wrought iron gates splitting the gardens off into sections, I wasn't able to figure that out. There was a very excitable 2-3 year old running up and down taking great delight in holding the gates open for people so they could walk through. Such a polite little tyke.

I took in sites some more and strolled through the gift shop on the south end of the boulevard. I really dislike gift shops, yet I always seem to go through them at least once. They just always seem to have an overload of cheesy, "made in China," touristy items rather than anything of real interest. I didn't spend much time there other than to look at some T-shirts.

I continued North now making my way back to my vehicle. I got separated from the young gentleman on my walk back so I had to open my own gates. I missed that little dude.

My next stop of interest was the bell tower. As a member of the United Methodist Church, I was interested in the fact that this structure was donated by a Methodist church in Canada. When their original church building was sold they donated the bells to the Peace Gardens. I was bummed when I read the bells were supposed to toll every 15 minutes. I had been there almost an hour by that time and they were still silent. I love the sound of old church bells so I was pretty disappointed I didn't get to hear these.There are 14 bells in there cast by Gillett and Johnston bell foundry all the way from Croydon, England. I had to go to the Peace Garden website to read more about this and hopefully play a recording of the chimes. I was further dismayed that although I did find a bit of history about this, there was only a video with some classical guitar music in the background. You would think if they were going to go through the trouble producing a video, at least part of it should have been the ringing of those chimes. Not many places have a bell tower anymore, especially one with 14 bells in it.

I sent a friendly email to the park administrator and got a very pleasant response. The original bells were on a hand-pulled system. When they were installed at the Peace Gardens, they had an engineer construct a series of mechanical pulleys so they bells would automatically ring every 15 minutes during the Summer months. Apparently they are having problems with the system and having a hard time finding someone today with the expertise to fix it. They appreciated the comment about posting a recording on their website so who knows, maybe they'll put something out there in the future.

My next stop was the Game Warden museum. This was really the main reason for my visit. As an employee of the ND Game & Fish Department, I was involved just a little bit with the promotion and initial fund raising of this building and I hadn't seen it yet. Plus I really get into wildlife displays. Here's a massive Kodiak bear that greets you when you walk in the door. I spent some time wandering around, taking in the "wall of shame" that highlights some huge poaching violations that were successfully prosecuted over the years. Then I went outside and walked along the memorial to fallen officers. Pretty neat stuff. There have been two game wardens who have passed away since I've been with the department.

Another part of the exhibits is a rotating display highlighting some group or organization involved in public service. This month's display featured the Saskatchewan Smoke Jumpers. These brave people parachute into the wilderness to put out wild fires. Absolutely amazing and informative display showing their uniform and equipment. I really get into this stuff.

And there you have it. After leaving the museum, I went speedily through customs thanks to the new passport card that significantly speeds up the process. Compared to only having a birth certificate.

My drive home alone was no where near as interesting as my drive up, but I enjoyed a nice Chinese buffet at the Happy Panda in Minot and made it home without incident.

I would definitely recommend the Peace Gardens if you haven't been there in awhile. It was a nice visit.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

A Trip To International Music Camp

A few weeks ago, I had the distinct pleasure of taking my daughter, Brianna, to the International Music Camp at the Peace Gardens. I can describe this whole trip in two words, pure joy. We started off on a Sunday morning. I was extremely bleary-eyed having worked until 1:30 that morning. I was printing deer tags if you must know. Why I was doing this in the middle of the night in the middle of a weekend, with severe thunderstorm and flash flood warnings coming down from the North is a whole different blog story which may or may not be published. (I'm running about 3 blogs behind right now)

I live about 3 miles North of Mandan and it seemed foolish to drive South, then East, then finally North on Highway 83 up to Minot. So I took a somewhat meandering route North straight from our house and crossed the Missouri at Washburn, ND. I will forever take this route from now on. It is much more scenic and interesting and shaves off about 11 miles from my total travel distance.

I stopped at the first C-store I came across for the largest cup of coffee they had. Thus fortified, I continued the trip in earnest. Brianna crashed shortly after disembarking and I glanced at her wistfully every so often while trying to keep my own eyes open. In my opinion, kids are at their most beautiful state when they are sleeping. I felt this way when my kids were infants and I still feel this way though my oldest is now 13. There is just something about a sleeping child that reminds me all is well with the world.

Sleeping beauty woke up just as I made the turn North at Washburn to pick up Highway 83 to Minot. She was startled and commented she didn't remember seeing that on her last trip. (This was to be Brianna's 2nd week of band camp. She had just got back a week ago for her flute and was now going up again with her tenor sax.) I asked if she'd ever seen Washburn? I knew for a fact I was on the same road she took both coming and going for the last trip. She shook her head and I said she had probably been asleep then too. She nodded in the affirmative and continued to look around as if we had just landed on Mars. It takes my daughter awhile to wake up. Her eyes might be open, but that doesn't always mean she's fully awake.

I realized I had now been given a special moment. Father-daughter alone time. This is a very rare treasure. Sadly these times don't come very often. Usually when they do, we don't take advantage of them. I wanted to catch up on how her life was going. Usually conversations like this are classified as "girl-talk" and my wife is the only one privy to the secret discussions that take place. I asked her if she was excited about band camp. "Oh waaaaay!," she exclaims and that's all I had to say to facilitate miles worth of chatter about the friends she met the last time and was hoping to meet this time, what her teachers were going to be like. The various social events that take place, the "chores" that they are given throughout the week. It's not all about music as campers are expected to help with clean-up and maintenance throughout the week as well.

I sensed a lull in the proceedings and very carefully broached another subject I was extremely interested in hearing her take on. Boys. I asked about her friends at school. That was all that took. She immediately took off on several more miles of chatter about the various antics her friends had been up to at school, recent events on her myspace page, and was still in full flow when we finally stopped in Rugby for lunch.

Call me crazy, but I have this obsession with the Hot Stuff pizzas at Cenex. For some reason, they really tickle my taste buds. I know Brianna's favorite food in the known universe is cheese pizza of any kind. I asked if she wanted to go to the Cornerstone Cafe. (geographical center of North America dontcha know?) for a sit-down dinner, but I knew what she would say. "NO!!!" evidently she had a bad experience there on her first trip.

So we went into Cenex and got another large coffee and supreme personal pan for me and a large Diet Mt. Dew and cheese personal pan for my now wide awake daughter. We ate in the car. Don't ask me why we didn't sit at the tables conveniently located in the air-conditioned store. I probably wasn't fully awake either or else was severely into a caffeine buzz and wasn't thinking quite clearly.

"G&*#$D P#&&$*#A!!!" mumbled Brianna through a mouthful of gooey cheese. I'm not kidding you can bite into these things and stretch the piece all the way out to arms length without breaking the strand of melted goodness. Translated I believe she said, "Good Pizza!"

Yes, I quite agree. I didn't need to, but I asked anyway, just to see her expression if this was better than the cafe. "WAAAAAYYY!" as if that was the most ridiculous question ever asked.

We finished our delicious lunch, wiped the grease off our faces and proceeded to Dunseith, the US-Canada border and the Peace Gardens. Again, a very enjoyable trip. For some strange reason, traveling North and South across North Dakota is so much more interesting than traveling East and West. I don't know why. Maybe it was just the pleasurable company, but it was such an enjoyable trip I really can't describe it.

Brianna was getting more excited the closer we got. She actually screeched when we passed the big sign proclaiming International Music Camp straight ahead. She loves this camp. She had so much fun the first week and I would later find out the 2nd week was even better. She assured us she will now be attending camp every year as long as she is able.

I don't mess around when I'm driving somewhere. I try never to exceed 5 miles above the posted limit, but I rarely drive under the limit either. We did save time during lunch but whatever the reason we got to band camp plenty early. A full hour and a half before they opened the registration doors. I briefly thought about the hour of sleep I could have had and started towards the building thinking just maybe they'd let us check in early.

Yeah right. The first door I tried was locked solid. Not to be outdone I meandered around the building and went in the back. The door opened and I received a glare that could have solidified concrete from some poor kid sweeping the floor. I very meekly asked if there was any way we could register now. More glare and a terse reply, "Registration starts at one!"

I mumbled an apology and bowed myself out the door. I heard the tell tale click of the lock from the now closed door behind me and went back to the vehicle. It was starting to get rather warm so I opened the windows and reclined the seat for some more shut-eye.

It seemed I had only just drifted off when Brianna shrieked again. "There's Marcy!" Her voice can be extremely loud when she wants it to be. After I recovered from my very abrupt seizure into the waking world I looked over to see another van drive up with one of Brianna's friends in it. Both girls burst from their respective vehicles and after the required hugs went into the totally awesome time everyone would have at camp. I had already met Marcy's mom but this was the first time meeting the dad so I introduced myself and tried to make small talk while everyone was waiting.

Marcy has very interesting parents so we had an enjoyable time talking about children and work and parenting. Marcy's mom noticed a line of people walking toward the registration building and suggested we get in line. It was still about a 40 minute wait until the doors opened but I was warned that this line gets very long in a very short period of time. The parking lot had indeed started to fill up as people began to arrive with their children.

We beat a hasty exodus to the building and snagged a prime spot about 6 people back but still under the shaded overhang of the building. It had grown from warm to almost scorching hot by this time so the shaded area was very welcome. I really felt sorry for all the people that had to wait an hour in that hot sun.

We continued more pleasant conversation and were finally let into the building. Having been through this process once before, Brianna was an expert and led me along like a dog on a leash. I humbly followed, signing things and nodding my head when necessary. Deanna, my wife, had prepaid everything 2 weeks before so I had receipts in hand and our process was very streamlined compared to the people doing this the first time.

It's quite an assembly line. You come in, give the camper's name to the person at the computer. They check it out on the screen and fill out a paper card. The camper proceeds to the name tags and finds their name hanging on the carousel. Brianna was still wearing her badge from the last camp. I asked her why. Apparently it's quite the style for kids to wear all their badges from that year. Some kids are back for their 3rd, 4th, or more weeks and having several of these badges seems to be something of a status symbol. Whatever, I say...

Then we go to the next station and hand the card over from the first station and get the room and dorm assignment. Brianna grabs this and crams it into her pocket. They offer us a map and Brianna tells them she doesn't need it. I say, "wait a minute, I'll take it!" I'm kind of a map freak, and Brianna has gotten me lost before so I wasn't taking any chances.

Then we go to the med station and turn over Brianna's inhalers and pain medication for any health situations that might arise, then go to the bank station and deposit her spending money for the week. Then, finally, we burst through the exit door. My head was still spinning from the experience. This camp has gone on for a number of years and they process several hundred kids each week so they've got it down to a science and have people standing by to direct stragglers who seem to be lost or misdirected.

We waited for Marcy and family and then made our way to the gift shop. This was strictly the females choice of destinations. I was thinking why don't we unload all her gear at the dorm, then, thus unencumbered, could visit the other areas of necessity. Thankfully I wasn't dragging luggage and a saxophone all over camp. We left that in the vehicle. I still had to walk all the way back across camp to get the luggage and then back again to deposit it in the dorm. If we would have gone to the dorms first it would have saved one round-trip through the camp. But I didn't even get a chance to vote. The girls were going to the gift shop and I could wait in the car if I had to. No thanks.

I need to have a discussion with this girl about money. She got a sum total of $100 spending money that was to last a whole week. Wisely, the camp doesn't like them carrying around large sums of money so they have this "bank" from which they withdraw small amounts of pocket money as needed. We had deposited $80 and she was carrying a twenty dollar bill. What's the first thing she does? She pulls down a $35 sweatshirt way too large for her and gets in line at the cash register.

I decided to make this a teaching moment and said nothing as she waited patiently in line chatting with her friend and grabbed an IMC button to pin to her lanyard from which now dangled 2, count them, 2 badges signifying her 2nd week at camp. The cashier said $37 please. Brianna looks at me almost nonchalantly asking, "Dad, you got 17 bucks?"

Ah no, I most certainly do not. I stopped carrying cash years ago and use plastic exclusively except for the occasional paper check once in awhile. So, her face a little pinker now, Brianna says she'll just take the button please and I'll put the sweatshirt back. I didn't launch into the extensive lecture I would have if we were alone, but since she had her friends with her I took it easy on her and said she only had $100 and she would not be getting any more and it probably wasn't the best decision to spend over a third of it after being in camp not even 2 hours.

One thing that really upset me was that they were charging people paying in Canadian money 10% more. Fine, that was roughly the exchange rate, but get this. Brianna paid in American and received change in an American-Canadian mix of money. Do you think they gave her 10% more for the Canadian portion? No sir. I felt like stomping up to that cashier and demanding she get another 50 cents for the Canadian five dollars or someone would hear about it. But I bit my tongue, it was after all, only 50 cents. But little things like that really get to me. See my previous blog on colors, it must have been my "Gold" personality shining through.

We finally left the gift shop, trudged back to the car, got the gear, trudged back again to the dorms and unloaded Brianna in her room. She got a brief shock when she realized the roommate she had signed up with was not her roommate but some other girl looking scared as all get out at what was obviously her first week of camp. Her father's personality could not have been more different. He had to have been a used-car or insurance salesman, or perhaps a politician. You know the type. Loud, overly-friendly, talkative, shakes hands with any and all people within reach. He immediately throttles Brianna's hand and introduces himself, then squeezes the lifeblood out of mine. His poor daughter hasn't moved or said a word and has the glazed, "deer in the headlights" look. For more reference, see "deer me" blog.

One of the dorm advisers yelled everyone needed to come to the lobby for the briefing. This must have been taken right of army boot camp. The speaker sounded just like a drill instructor, no perfume, no video games, no cell phones, yes you will take your shoes off at the door. I smiled in grim satisfaction along with several other dads that were eating this up. I love rules, again, see more about my gold personality here.

Brianna's friend, Marcy, isn't so fond of rules. She now has the "deer in the headlights" look, eyes as big as saucers. Brianna whispers, "they're very strict here." Marcy just nods her head.

Finally, all good things must end. I got Brianna settled, she was looking at me like I was beginning to overstay my welcome. I gave her a hug and a kiss and told her to have a great time.

I headed for the door a bit misty-eyed. It is difficult watching your kids grow up. I couldn't help but think about what it would be like sending her off to college or off to her new home with a new husband. But we mustn't get ahead of ourselves. Hopefully those goodbyes are a few years away yet.

This got to be way too long so stay tuned for part 2 about my trip to the Peace Gardens.