For a week, we stayed on Ian's Howpark Farm.
Ian's Scottish great-grandfather had started the farm 124 years ago. It sat unimposingly, looked after by the only orange hills that popped up for miles on these Prairie fields as flat as a laser beam.
We worked the days away. Dirty-blond, nice guy, honest-as-an-apple Ian had us Canada-trekkers pick peas and green beans, peel pea pods, pick pink raspberries, pluck plump choke cherries, pick prickly pickly cucumbers, and pull pudgy potatoes from the soil. When Ian asked us if we knew how to "dig a potato," Julie said, "A little. My grandpa usually puts a little olive oil on them." Ian walked away, confused. Then, Julie realized he hadn't asked her if she knew how to "bake a potato," and she felt silly.
We also weeded Ian's acre of echinacea, which was tough work. Our tired wrists had to grip and rip out all the small, stubborn plants crowding in on the rows of echinacea. At the end of the first day, I scraped old cow manure off the back of a truck using a hose and broom.
I looked over to where Adam sat comfortably in Ian's air-conditioned tractor, the same air-conditioned seat he'd sat in lazily all day, pulling levers to move hay bundles, and I hated him. I hated him because he knew how to drive a tractor, and so he always got the cushy, skilled jobs that endeared him to the farmers we worked for. I was always going to be a manure-scraper. Johnny was always going to be a weed-puller.
Okay. Maybe I didn't hate Adam, but he got to deliver chicken feed to Ian's chickens too. Chickens used to be my specialty!
Meanwhile, Ian drove machinery in the fields. In the hay fields, I believe he was collecting the hay into bundles. In the other fields, he "swaffed" the wheat and barley, which means he cut the tops off the crop stalks to be collected, stored, and sold. It was harvest time.
Ian's dad, former Howpark Farm care-taker, Doug, helped all day. Doug was an awesome guy. He was serene-looking, in glasses. He was small, with thin calfs that seemed to hurt him when he walked. He was very nice, and he had many questions for us WWOOF-program farm volunteers about our opinions, our goals, our travels, and our stories.
When the work-day was done, we enjoyed the fruits of our labor. Our first dinner on the farm, Ian prepared for us steak, baked potatoes, green peas, spinach, and raspberry salad with homemade dressing. It was all home-grown (I think), organic (free of chemicals and pesticides), and delicious.
Howpark Farm required a lot of attention, but the weekend came to the Manitoba Prairies, and we were all taking it off.
We were taking it off to go an hour north to enjoy this year's Family Camp. In addition to Ian and his parents, Doug and Hazel, we WWOOFers got to hang out with Ian's all-bleach-blond family.
There was Linda, Ian's wife, who was farm-friendly, smiling, and spectacled. Twelve-year-old Andrew spoke intelligently and knew a lot about farms. Avery, the nine-year-old daughter, wore her hair in pigtails sometimes and had a sweet, little face. Little, seven-year-old Zach looked innocent and had salamander-harmless eyes like his father; whenever he got excited, he stuttered his words and laughed like a chipmunk.
Family Camp was a crazy setting. There were parents, grandparents, camp counselors our age, and kids galore. Kids ran around the drought-oranged fields, the basketball court, the volleyball court, the cabins, the dining hall, and the nearby lake.
In addition to running around, Family Camp activities included a volleyball tournament, a baseball game (I pitched, and you should've seen me exposing the weaknesses in their lineup of 7- and 70-year-olds ... heh heh!), races (Johnny asked, "They have the races right after dinner?" and wanted to title them: "Run and Puke"), and a talent show.
Those Manitobonians are a talented bunch. Ian and Linda's family, a.k.a. The Blond Squad, had a solid showing. Andrew played something really hard and pretty and classical on the piano, while Avery did a bittersweet violin solo. Another cool act was a violin-playing quartet that included a four-year-old boy who barely knew to move his bow, and an eighty-year-old grandfather who fought off shaking to play.
The talent show was also our first introduction to Wade. Wade was a little, blond kid/terror who wreaked havoc every year on the camp. He quickly played "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" on the stage piano. Then, he grabbed a pom-pom that one of the counselors on-stage was holding (she was dressed as a cheerleader), and he started beating her with it while she tried to take it from him and remain smiling. Wade was trouble ...
After the show, we American hitchhikers prepared beside our camping spot for the "Ho-down" that was about to go down. In baggy windpants and a hooded sweatshirt, I poured water down my throat from my milk jug.
Adam said, "Johnny (referring to me), you're a Michigan Long-Hair. They don't normally make it this far north in the summer."
Kids'-smile Johnny said, "That was very picturesque. You, getting a drink in the dusk. It was very National Geographic."
We reached the cabin-dance late, and our group was intimidated by a flooded floor of kids and counselors doing crazy country dances. Eventually, Johnny and Adam gained courage to get up to clap their hands wildly and square-dance. Farmer Ian and Linda tried dancing. I waltzed and polka'd with short, big counselor Leann. It was tough to get Julie up - a self-titled non-dancer - but Johnny and I would ultimately force her into our arms on the floor. Man! Johnny and I couldn't believe we hadn't danced on the trip before that.
Next on the night, we joined some of the counselors to go "happy-bapping," an event known to most non-Manitobblers as skinny-dipping. Julie abstained, and the rest headed to the lake.
By day, Family Camp's massive Clear Lake, on the edge of Riding Mountain National Park, was a beautiful salty-white-blue basin stretching to riding hills of pine trees. But, by night, while I was butt-naked, it was dark and exciting. Rays from the northern lights flittered up from the horizon.
That same night, we warmed ourselves by starting a camp-fire out in the woods. We tred forest trails late, and we met much fresh bear poop. Ooo, scary ...
It was much less scary, though, than that little blond kid ... Wade! Wade was freaking me out.
Sunday evening, we watched as cat-mishievous Wade piled a ridiculously large amount of ham-sandwich buns onto his plate at dinner. A minute later, I said to a counselor: "Yeah, I saw that kid, Wade, making off with all the buns."
Adam said that I'd ratted Wade out, and I agreed. "I'm in big trouble," I said.
"You're done," said Johnny. "He's gonna come after you."
Wade was only three feet tall, but he was scary. Ian told of how, in Family Camps past, he'd gone up and punched someone in the thigh he didn't even know. He threw a clump of sand at someone else.
He'd peed off the dining hall steps just because he wanted to the last year, Avery told us. Zach said he threw hissy fits every time you took something from him. "Yesterday, he had two basketballs. So, a girl took one. It's like, 'you don't need two basketballs.' He started crying."
We spotted Wade on the basketball court, his lair of no-good. It was here where we'd watched him the day before, when he got the idea to grab a nearby hose and spray the other kids on his basketball court. His villainy was ingenius, unstoppable.
"Don't look!" Adam told me.
"Don't let him see me."
"He's coming this way!"
Johnny: "And he's got the hose!"
"And a clump of dirt."
"I'm now on Wade's 'hit'-list," I said. "Do you think Wade's got a 'hit'-list?"
"Everyone's on it," said Johnny.
I avoided Wade, until an hour or so later we were both in the dining hall. Johnny reported, "He's got a fly-swatter. And he's mumbling something over and over, under his breath."
It was time to get out of there.
We headed home for Howpark Farm, saving me from a certain swatting.
Julie and I considered the possibility that little Wade would start hitchhiking after us across Canada. A car would stop for us, and the driver would tell me, "Get in the backseat ... with Wade."
And then, Wade's self-played soundtrack of horror would sound oddly through the Prairies. "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. How I wonder what you ...
We got safely back to Ian and Linda's farm, for a few more days of work.
Johnny took to being sick. The poor guy's eyes got all puffy, and he slept most of the day. Eventually, he would go to the doctor's office. It was his first experience with the Canadian medical system, and he was impressed by how he got in to see the doctor right away.
So, this left Adam, Julie, and me to clean out graineries, a.k.a. steel bins. Ian and Doug were collecting the crops at this time, and they needed places to put them. Adam and Julie and I went into these fifteen-foot-plus cylinders with brooms and shovels and buckets. We banged on the echoing walls and tried to get as much of 2002's dry crop dust out as we could. We wore doctor-type masks to filter what we breathed, but we still ended up covered in crop dust and filthy when we stepped out into Ian's fields.
Some of those graineries were real messes. We fought over the shower when we returned to Ian's. My all-coldwater-shower policy was at its most difficult whenever a house tapped well-water, as most farms do. The water left the pipes zappingly cold, and it sometimes sent an icy shockwave through my cranium as I washed my face. But, oh! the advantages to such a policy.
After we were cleaned, we hung out with nice Linda and the kids. The meals continued to be wonderful, and we loved the family.
Andrew and Zach played a Monopoly-like board game, called The Farming Game, with some of us.
I said, "Okay, Andrew and Zach. Whoever wins this game gets your dad's farm."
Yes. The WWOOF program is pretty awesome. Some of the Howpark Farm kids were sad to see us go, and we'll always remember our farming friends - a great bunch - in Manitoba.
But, if you go to Manitoba, stay off the basketball courts!
"Twinkle, Twinkle, Little St- ..."
Later, the "Michigan Long-Hair"
with Johnny, Adam, and Julie
Thanks to Ron for the ride!
Much thanks to Kath, Paul, & the Hills; and Ian, Linda, Andrew, Avery, & Zach for the places to stay!
NOTEABLE WILDLIFE SIGHTINGS: ducks