Searching for Estrada

It is a glorious fall day–Canadian Thanksgiving–so I wore my new hikers up to Buntzen Lake to test them out on the trails and search for Estrada. (I love these Keens!)


When you take a three-month hiatus in the middle of writing a book you can’t always pick up where you left off. Buntzen Lake is where the Hollystone witches do their rituals and it’s Estrada’s favourite place. I knew if I could find him anywhere, it would be here in these woods.

I discovered Buntzen Lake twenty years ago. It’s a beautiful park located in Anmore, B.C.

When we left Ontario, with all of our possessions in a trailer and drove west, Anmore Campground was our end point. I saw it on a map, and it seemed like the closest camping spot to Vancouver. When we arrived, we rented a storage locker and unloaded our U-Haul. That campground became home for several weeks before we found our first suite.

The park itself hasn’t changed much, although developers are cashing in on the beauty of this land and its location. Run by BC Hydro, it’s a gorgeous playground with many hiking trails and launch facilities for watercraft. The campground is still there, as is the small Anmore store where you can buy ice cream and rent canoes and kayaks.

To Charm a Killer

The off-leash dog beach at Buntzen Lake is where Maggie Taylor is writing her Macbeth essay and playing with Remy, her black lab, at the beginning of To Charm a Killer. When the dog hears Dylan’s bagpipes in the forest, he takes off. And that’s how Maggie first meets the Hollystone witches and gets caught up in their charm.

Remy stopped digging and sprung from the hole. Hackles rigid, he pivoted to face the forested mountain at their backs. Bagpipes? Scottish bagpipes? The music of Macbeth? Here? In the forest above Buntzen Lake?

A shiver struck Maggie as her dog bolted. In his haste, he leapt off a stump, cleared the chain link fence, and disappeared through the trees.

Chasing after him, she hit the top bar with both hands, vaulted over the fence and raced into the forest. “Remy!”

Writing is a fascinating process. Everything you encounter gets stored in your research data banks and may eventually appear in a book. This beach, where we took our pup many years ago, became an anchor setting in To Charm a Killer.


Maggie Taylor lives in a log house at the end of Hawk’s Claw Lane–a laneway nestled up against the park. When she moves to Ireland with her mother, Daphne and Raine, two of the Hollystone witches, rent the house and adopt Remy. So, the log house continues to be an integral setting in books two and three. A VIB (very important baby) is born there on the back deck, but I can’t tell you who. Not just yet.

Despite her parents, Maggie knew that she was fortunate to live in this place. Their home perched between two bodies of water close enough to walk between: Buntzen Lake and the Pacific Ocean. Sometimes the inlet was rank with decaying sea creatures and slick fetid muck that could suck down small children and gumboots; while other times, the water flowed deep, charged by the invisible force of the tides. Bordered by beaches, boardwalks, and parks, it attracted boaters and paddlers, along with salmon-chasing harbour seals and bald eagles.

Shadowed by the Coast Mountains and groves of giant red cedars, their yard was shaded, yet brilliant with blossoming rhododendrons, planted by Shannon in one of her gardening frenzies years before. Anchored by the log house that John had built for them with his own hands, the Taylor family lived in tenuous tranquility at the end of Hawk’s Claw Lane. Their lives were so well constructed that Maggie had told only two people—who absolutely required an explanation at the time—that her father suffered from a severe head injury and required medication and constant monitoring to keep up the façade.

She had told no one that she was the cause of that injury. Once uttered, that truth was irrevocable and could unleash forces over which she had no control—forces that could change her life forever.

But it’s their high priest, Estrada, who loves Buntzen Lake the most–and it’s where I found him today, as I knew I would.


At the signal tree, they veered off a grass-flecked game trail between massive ferns. Buntzen Lake simmered below, a smoky emerald in the growing dusk. Ancient granite mountains encircled the water; their snow-tipped spires still harbouring scattered traces of last winter’s storms. Pine spikes jutted like slivers from the distant peaks, split only by immense mottled rock that gaped through the trees—faces of mountain spirits and Old World giants.

EU Airline Claims

If you’ve been reading my blog this summer, you know that I travelled in Ireland and the return trip to Canada was a nightmare. I wrote about the experience in this post:


I didn’t leave it there. There is an EU law that you should know about.

At the airport, we were only given a piece of paper that mentioned the EU law because we asked for it. And we only asked for it because someone else in the queue knew about it. Passengers started talking and informed each other. So that’s why I’m informing you.

Although I was feeling very ill when I came home, I submitted a formal complaint to the airline.

Your Right to Compensation

If you’re travelling in Europe and you experience a delay of over three hours you have  rights and are entitled to compensation. This is a solid article from “This is Money” about those rights and how to make a claim.

There are some organizations that offer to help you with this, but we just used this form and filled it out ourselves.

I’m happy to say that we received an email from Air Transat within three weeks offering us each compensation (600 Euros). This is the amount owed for:

a delay of 4 hours or more More than 3,500 km between an EU and non-EU airport €600

A cheque arrived about three weeks later. It’s important to know your rights and to act. I’m sure there were many other passengers on this flight who were so happy to finally be home, they just let it go. Know your rights.


The Horror in Resolution Cove

It’s a busy week for reviews. Two of mine are in the Ottawa Review of Books and feature the same author. Tyner Gillies.

The Watch and Dark Resolution are set in Resolution Cove, a small town along the BC coast, and feature Constable Quinn Sullivan.

Read my reviews here.

I met Tyner several years ago at the Surrey International Writers Conference which, I must say, is THE BEST writing conference happening in British Columbia. We connected again on Twitter last year and I noticed that he’d published two books. Naturally, I wanted to read them.

One of the cool things about Tyner is that he’s been working as an RCMP officer for the past fourteen years, yet he still manages to write novels. Horror novels. That he understands evil and good is apparent in his books.


Tyner Gillies with author Robert Dugoni (SiWC)

The other cool thing about Tyner is that he’s got style. You’ll see it in his books and you may see it during a conference if you’re lucky.


A Review to Inspire

An excellent review of my book, To Sleep with Stones, came out today on the Ottawa Review of Books! It couldn’t come at a better time. I’m halfway through the sequel, Book 3, and just about to hunker down into draft mode again. To be inspired is to be filled with spirit and a great review is a superb booster.

Thank you Gail M. Murray for writing the review.

Thank you Ottawa Review of Books for publishing it.

And a shout-out to Kat McCarthy at Aeternum Designs for a custom cover.

To Sleep With Stones_Paperback_8Mar2017


The Last Neanderthal

Sometimes a story appears that lingers after I close the cover. The Last Neanderthal, or rather, Girl, who is the last Neanderthal, affected me like this.


I have a profound affection for the past and the ancestors; a respect for Indigenous ways. Perhaps that is why. One of my first anthropology papers (in the early 90s) was titled “Neanderthal: the First Humanitarians”. In it, I argued that the people were much like us, that they buried their dead and left flowers on their graves. This homage to those we love shows our humanity.


Cameron’s novel interweaves the stories of two women at key junctures in their lives. One is an archaeologist, named Rose Gale, who discovers a curious grave; the other, our teenage Neanderthal: the “object” of Gale’s efforts. Both are driven. Both are pregnant. But that is where the similarity ends.

I don’t like Rose. She is ambitious, obsessed, fearful of losing control of her work because of her pregnancy. The modern woman? She seems disconnected from her partner and her baby. Alongside Girl, Rose Gale is annoying and self-centred; at least, until she births her baby and accepts her tribe.

If Cameron’s purpose is to reveal how far homo sapiens sapiens (ironically: wise wise man) has strayed from humanity in his quest for knowledge and fame, she’s done a remarkable job.

Who Were They?

Hunters, 40,000 years distant, Girl’s family are fused with the land and with each other.  Neanderthals are so named because of bones unearthed in the Neander River valley in Germany.  The species evolved in Europe and inhabited Eurasia. Though they are now extinct, their DNA survives in us; meaning, they interbred with us. The author, Claire Cameron, says that she is 2.5% Neanderthal according to 23andme. And National Geographic says that you or I could carry Neanderthal DNA:

Everyone living outside of Africa today has a small amount of Neanderthal in them, carried as a living relic of these ancient encounters. A team of scientists comparing the full genomes of the two species concluded that most Europeans and Asians have between 1 to 2 percent Neanderthal DNA.

Big Mother


Girl’s family live within a territory under the leadership of Big Mother, a stern loving matriarch who wears a headress of horns to highlight her status. They hunt bison and trap salmon during the spawn.

They are few: Him, Bent, Girl, Runt. And use few words.

There was a stillness to her culture. There were few points of contact between families. Changes rarely had a chance to spread. There were no other ways to live. Other words weren’t needed. The family knew how things were done (220).

Cameron has given them limited vocabulary. Aroo seems multi-purpose —  Hey, how’s it going? I’m back. Do you see me? Check this out. And pitch, which means, “keep your head attached to your meat and your family attached to the land.”

Singing the Soul of the Land

Girl’s family have much to teach us about our relationship with the land. Using pathetic fallacy, this poetic author sings to us of nature and our interconnectedness through Girl’s soul.

She put a foot on a sturdy branch and held the trunk with arms wrapped tight. She pressed her body against it. The warm trunk pulled her in and her body melted into the trunk like softened sap. Her limbs stretched down to dirt, and sap ran in her veins as if it were blood. This was the strength of the forest…The trees stood together like the whole body of a family lining the ridge. The swaying branches talked and told one another of what they saw. One flicked a branch. A few dead leaves that still clung after the winter storms rustled. The limbs let the secrets pass among them. Twigs snapped and the needles clattered together in discomfort. They swayed with sadness…If Girl watched and felt the patterns in the leaves, she could read them (119).

Girl knows nature and all within it are alive and sentient. When she sees slashes on a tree she is horrified. “It hurt the tree, just like cutting skin. Its sap had bled and bubbled up from the wound. To Girl it was a kind of senseless violence” (219). She feels and senses the nature around her: “Soon the yolk of the sun cracked into the sky and colour bled” (143). It is this consciousness that keeps her alive in wild terrain where all carnivores vie with each other for meat. And she is meat herself.


Early in the story, Girl’s family are attacked by leopards and she is left with Runt, a seven-year-old boy who Big Mother adopted. He is different from them in many ways. Smaller and finer-featured, his skin is charcoal, his hair “like moss”. He eats green plants (yuk) and jabbers too much (he’s a Crowthroat). His walking gait is more “elegant” and he likes to wear the skins of animals on his feet to protect them. Clearly, Runt is from another tribe, even another species.

Along with Wildcat, Runt becomes her travelling companion for over a year. Girl is pregnant by He (her older brother). Though incest is a taboo taught through shadow stories by Big Mother, Girl comes into heat and seduces Him, urged by a force too great to control.

From cover to final photograph, we are teased with the image of two skeletons who face in as if looking into each other’s eyes. Found together in the same stratum, they are clearly different species. One is our Neanderthal, Girl; the other is modern man. The archaeologist’s quest is to bring this story to light.

In the end, we do not see that final burial. They are touching noses: the gesture of affection Girl learned from her pet, Wildcat. But, we do not know how or why they ended up together. We are left to ponder. Is this Runt? Did Girl and Runt mate? (She is only six or seven years older than he is.) Or, is this the gaze of mother-child devotion? Is she his Big Mother and he her child? Or, did Girl survive long enough to find a new mate among Homo Sapiens Sapiens? I am troubled by this. After all her near deaths, I want to know how dead wood comes for Girl.

Dead Wood

It is their custom to excavate a hole and bury the body beneath a living tree. Thus, when a body dies it becomes wood. I love this. Let my body feed a tree. Drag the stones from our graveyards and plant trees. Leave our bones in peace. Leave our trees in peace. Let us nurture one another.


Large Irish yew tree in St Colmcille’s graveyard



In Celebration of Trees

Source: Home

This is one of the best blogs I’ve seen. Nick Rowan (he even has a tree name) is the Treeographer. He’s also a traveller, woodworker, and a wonderful writer.

The Treeographer is my attempt to bring my enthusiasm for trees to others – not by evoking guilt or pity, but rather by celebrating the interlacing history of man and tree.

Farley and Me

Farley Mowat and I go back a long way. I didn’t know him personally but his stories taught me much of what I knew about the Canadian north when I was a kid. He was the quintessential Canadian writer, not just because he wrote about Canada, but because, like the land, his stories held, and continue to hold, such power. And he was from my time. When he mentions Eric the Red and Leif the Lucky, I smile. Those were the Vikings that fascinated me in third grade, when the bottom half of our notebooks were lined and the top left blank for a pencil sketch of the explorers. Long before Ragnar Lothbrok. It was a time when authors (white males) wrote with omniscient (godlike) viewpoints and felt no need for political correctness because it didn’t yet exist.

Lost in the Barrens


I spent the last few days reading myself to sleep with Lost in the Barrens. This is the book that teachers recommend to boys who don’t read, for within its pages lie adventures they will never experience any other way. I don’t know for sure, but I’ll bet that Gary Paulsen of Hatchet fame found Farley Mowat’s books when he was a kid.

Written in 1956, Lost in the Barrens was the third book Farley published, and it won the Governor General’s Award. This “survival story” details the adventures of an orphaned Toronto boy named Jamie Macnair and his Cree friend Awasin, who go hunting caribou with the Chipewyans and end up lost and fighting for their lives in the land of their tribal enemies, the Eskimos.

The two sixteen-year-old boys ride out a six-month mythic hero’s journey where they are tested step by step and page by page. They encounter:

  • rapids that destroy their canoe, matches, and most possessions
  • a stonehouse grave with Viking treasures (Farley tells its tale later in The Curse of the Viking Grave, 1967)
  • physical injuries and starvation
  • the sight of 250,000 caribou moving in long files down the valley and later an epic hunt
  • winter in the barrens and a blizzard that nearly kills them both
  • wild animals that they tame (a fawn and two lost sled dogs) and some that they don’t (wolverines and wolves)
  • snowblindness (the White Fire) that nearly drives them mad

At its heart is Awasin’s wisdom and Farley’s theme: “if you fight against the spirits of the north you will always lose.” Its echo resounds as the boys arrive home: “always travel with the forces of the land and never fight against them.”

The Forces of the Land.

I grew up in southern Ontario not far from where Farley spent his final days and some blue moons, the land calls me. I don’t know if it’s ancestral memory, karmic echoes, or simply the allure of home, but this land draws me like lodestone. A kind of madness ensues and I find myself on pricing Kawartha cottages where I went to university, or sorting through faded black and whites, or just visualizing the fields and trails where I rode my horse in Pickering.

SCAN0125My memories are forged on the flora and fauna of what I grew up calling the Eastern Woodlands. I understand the way of the land there; know the names of all the trees and plants; can still smell the odour of wax-pressed fall leaves and crave the sugar bush; remember the purple trillium, and the enormous oaks and elms that shaded us from summer sun so we could read beneath their boughs. And though I’ve lived in British Columbia for two decades I’ve never lost the lure of the lakeside cabin in the bush.

cabin in the bush

Like Yeats and Thoreau I long to cast off the city and “live deliberately” — until I think about mosquitoes and black flies, -30 Celsius and a metre of snow, and remember just how deliberate that is.

But still it calls. And, in part, I owe that calling to Farley Mowat.

Farley died in 2014 at the age of 92. He was still writing. Maclean’s magazine wrote such a stunning salute to Farley at the time of his death that I can only point the way.

In his hand he held a tiny sea shell, so old that when Awasin took it, it crumbled into dust between his fingers.

Jamie looked out over the broad valley to the dim blue line of the hills to the east. He spoke with awe. “Thousands, maybe a million years ago, this must have been one huge ocean, ” he said. “And these hills were just islands in it.”

Awasin was not surprised as Jamie expected him to be. “There’s a Cree legend about that,” he replied. “It tells of a time when the whole northern plains were all water and the water was filled with strange monsters.”