Gut

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“Enders’s wonder at the strange ways of the gut is matched only by her incredulity at the limited public knowledge on the subject.” —The New York Times

I finally got around to reading up on a topic of that I have been wanting to learn more about – the microbiome.  This refers, basically, to all the bugs that live in us – the uncountable numbers that inhabit our intestines.  There are more bacteria in one gram of our feces than there are people on the planet.  And so far scientists can’t even figure out who all these bacteria are.  Our gut appears to have its own brain, and is intimately connected with our immune system.  The study of our relationship to these bacteria is in its infancy, but already raise some startling possibilities.  For instance, the bacteria we harbour may in fact play a role in obesity, and have major effects on our mood.   Future knowledge promises to be fascinating at the very least, and could potentially radically change the way we think of ourselves. (Is it me, or just my bugs?)  I think this, and our growing understanding of the brain, are the next two new frontiers in health care.

I am currently reading Gut, selected after a quick browse of bestsellers on the topic on Amazon.  The book is written by a delightful young German woman – apparently an MD now doing a PhD on the subject.  However I’m not entirely sure of that – from her photos she appears to be about 13, so it’s just possible that she is actually working on her high school science project.  In any case she is funny and her writing is accessible, her analogies endearing.  She has a great way of making the topic interesting and relevant.

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This book would make a good companion to one of my all time favorite books on food – Micheal Pollan’s In Defense of Food.  In Gut Guilia talks about common food intolerances, such as lactose intolerance, gluten intolerance and fructose intolerance, and makes the point that what we call intolerances are perhaps not intolerances at all, but instances of our bodies being taxed to the limits of digestion – we were never really designed to consume dairy products and wheat in such quantities as we do now.

It’s all rather inspiring.  Our intestines are doing amazing things right under our noses, and yet we really know nothing about it.

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Truly Madly Deeply

Has this ever happened to you?  You are standing there, minding your own business, when someone comes up and asks you to share your list of the people, both living and dead, that you would most like to invite to a dinner party.  Are you prepared for this? No?  Me neither.  I don’t have my list finalized, but I can tell you that one person I know would be there is my all time favorite actor, Alan Rickman.  And sadly, this week we say goodbye to this great man, after his death from cancer.  A light has gone out in the world.

I discovered Alan Rickman decades ago, when he starred in one of my all time favorite movies, Truly Madly Deeply.  If you haven’t seen this film, you need to run out right away and do so.  It’s quirky and sublimely beautiful, always a potent combination.

Watch this short video clip from the movie, and prepare to be uplifted.  But first, let me set the stage a bit.  Alan Rickman plays Jamie, a musician who has recently died, to his chagrin, of a sore throat.  His partner Nina is devastated.  Until Jamie comes back as a ghost.  This clip is from the reunion scene.

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Truly Madly Deeply

One of the things I really love about this movie, aside from the amazing acting of Alan Rickman and Julia Stevenson, is that the movie is not about the obvious subject of how a man can come back as a ghost.  It explores a much more interesting question – imagine your dead lover has come back as a ghost – what happens next?  And what a great question!  Because we’d all wish for our dead lover to come back to us.  But have we thought about what happens next?  I won’t tell you what the answer is, because you need to see this film.  You can see the entire film here, (if you don’t mind the Portuguese subtitles.)

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“Yes,  I am bad”  AR as the Sheriff of Nottingham

From this movie, Alan Rickman went on to another fantastic role as the outrageously funny Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves, and then on to international stardom in such films as Die Hard, and the Harry Potter series.  He usually plays the bad guy, and in fact I’ve been waiting for years and years to see him cast as the villain in a James Bond movie.  Because frankly, those guys are so over the top as to be uninteresting.  While Alan Rickman’s characters are nuanced, with hidden, seething depths suggesting layers and layers of unexplored qualities – old agonies, pains and passions, a whole muddle of psychology, with a touch of irreverence thrown in to round things off nicely.  His acting was truly, madly deeply.  Can’t you just imagine him as a Bond bad guy?  Wouldn’t you love to really understand what makes a man like that?

Sadly, we will never know.  RIP Alan Rickman.  Thank you for the inspiration of your acting.  You have made the world a much better place.   I hope you can still come to my dinner party.

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The Opposite of Houseboat

Adventure:

  • an unusual and exciting, typically hazardous, experience or activity.
  • daring and exciting activity calling for enterprise and enthusiasm.

Happy New Year everyone!  It has been far too long since I have posted on this blog, and it’s wonderful to be back.  As I look back on the past year, I have so much to be thankful for.  It’s been a year of over-the-top, grand, exciting travel and adventure.  And some surprising changes.

The biggest change is that this fall we said goodbye to Houseboat 28, and moved back onto solid land.  Our great adventure in living on Great Slave Lake has come to an end.  It has been one of the most amazing and remarkable experiences of a lifetime filled with incredible experiences, and it is with sadness that we leave that part of our life behind.  I haven’t written about it until now as it’s actually a little hard to tell you about it.  This blog started when we moved to Yellowknife, and along the way took on a bit of a life of its own, and was certainly a part of the whole adventure.  So it feels a little strange now.  What will it become next?

Regular readers will know about the highs and lows of our time on the houseboat.  It certainly meets the definition of adventureThere is really nothing ordinary about living on a floating home several hundred meters off shore, on a massive lake near the Arctic Circle.  I fear we will never have such intense experiences again.  And yet that is precisely why we decided to move – all that intensity.  Adventure in life is important – going on a journey into the unknown,  either real or metaphysical, is a way of feeling alive, of exploring ourselves and this amazing planet, of continuing to learn.  Yet, as a constant way of life, it’s also exhausting.  One needs to step out of adventure from time to time and into restfulness.  At least for a time.

We made the decision to move ashore, and somewhere along with that came the decision to move back to BC.  The Spaniard, mountain man that he is, has really been missing mountains, and the hiking and skiing that you can do in them.  I too was happy to move back to our great community of Nelson, but wasn’t ready to change my job.  I continue to enjoy the specialized sort of emergency medicine practice of the Canadian north, and wanted to keep my half time job.  So for the next year, we are trying out our plan of having our cake and eating it too.  We are hoping for the best of both worlds as we spend half our time in BC and half our time in Yellowknife.  We have settled into a simple condo in Nelson, and have rented a fabulous suite in Yellowknife – as it happens it’s on the edge of the lake, and right by Houseboat 28,  which we can see from our living room window. We are thrilled to have a place on the lake, and in this way remain connected to the part of Yellowknife that is so amazing – that big beautiful open bay, fascinating in both winter and summer.  Our rental suite feels like it was meant to be.  In the way that happens when the universe delivers to you something you desperately hope for, but in a way that is better than your imaginings. (I have fantasized about someday having a second home in an exotic location, but somehow I always thought it might be Spain, or Paris, not…Yellowknife.  What does that say about me anyway?)

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View of Houseboat Bay from our new place – before sunrise in the fall.

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Moving day.

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Freighter canoe escort.  Love that boat.

So in September we loaded our entire household possessions onto a floating, mobile dock, and with the help of our houseboating friends, moved it all to shore.  That was in fact the easy part – the hard part was getting a moving van.   (The whole U-Haul scenario is a story for another day, but let me just say I am shocked by their business model.  Apparently in their dictionary, “guaranteed” means “unless we change our minds because we want to, and too bad for you.”  We had a couple of days of great stress, as at the last minute they cancelled our pre-arranged rental.  Twice.  We weren’t even sure on moving day if we would have something to move with.  We had to leave all our stuff sitting on the government wharf for hours, and  I thought for sure that big black rain cloud was going to say something.  Happily it did not rain, and we managed to get a van in the end.  Praise the moving gods.

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You can see why I had trouble finding the U-Haul office – its in that sad sack shed!   It looks like a bomb went off on the inside.  Or perhaps some chickens lived there once.  Or perhaps they still do.

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All our household possessions sitting on the dock…

The good news is that our wonderful friends were amazingly helpful, and had our stuff loaded on and off the floating dock in no time.  The incoming owners took the opportunity to get their stuff out to Houseboat 28 at the same time.

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Kuzman ‘directing’ the rest of us on how to do it. 

Then there was the small matter of the mysterious rubber chicken, which we kept finding in strange places.  He actually came in handy in the end, as he worked quite well as a flag to mark the back of the canoe, on top of the jeep.  He might be the first rubber chicken in the history of the world to ride from Yellowknife to Nelson on a canoe.

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View from our new place on the edge of Nelson.

So now we are settling into life in Nelson, and we marvel at how easy living in a warmer winter climate, in a condo, with unlimited electricity, can be.  It feels a bit dangerous actually – it would be pretty easy to get comfortable and stagnate in the good life.  Somehow I think we will be able to avoid this however – my 2016 resolution to stay home and take it easy started to feel a bit dull by about January 5th.  I don’t have too many exciting adventures planned for 2016, but I think I’ll manage to find some!  (I do have one great one planned – a 2 week whitewater canoe trip on the Mountain River, north of the Nahanni.  So excited about that one – I’ve been dreaming about it for years.)

And what does 2016 and beyond look like for this blog, The Song I Live By?  Well, it will be a different of blog, certainly, one without the crazy stories of life on Houseboat 28.   I never actually set out to chronicle our life on Houseboat 28 – my original intention was simply to write about the things that make life worth living, experiences large and small, both internal and external.  Somewhere along the way the fascination of life in the north took over and it became mostly about that – but there are many other interesting ways to live a life.  And so I hope the blog continues to have stories worth telling.  And that we continue to meet here!

 

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Northwest Passage IV – Encounters with Wildlife

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Photo by Ken Burton

This is the fourth blog installment about my trip through the Northwest Passage this summer with One Ocean Expeditions, on the Akademik Surgey Vavilov.

I’ll start by saying that we saw everything we hoped for and more.  It was incredible.  The Arctic can seem so empty, especially the high and desolate Arctic, but I’ve spent enough time there to realize that there are lots of animals too.  They can exist in vast numbers, like the caribou herds, or the great nesting colonies of kittiwakes and murres that I mentioned in the last post.  And last year we saw hundreds of Narwhal go by one morning, while we were eating breakfast on northern Baffin Island.  There is a vast amount of seemingly empty space, but in the space, it’s hard for anything to really hide.

The small white dot is a polar bear, visible from at least a mile away.

The two small white dots are polar bears, visible from at least a mile away.

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Greenlandic sled dogs, photo by Ken Burton

Well, the sled dogs, while not exactly tame, aren’t really wild.  But I thought you’d enjoy this great photo taken by Ken Burton, one of the historians on the trip, and the director of the Vancouver Maritime Museum.  Ken generously shared some of his great photos with me and he doesn’t mind me posting them here.  (One second thought, maybe they are wild – why is there one shoe in front of them?  What happened to the owner of that shoe?)

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Lonely muskox

We were able to get quite close to this lone muskox on Devon Island.  Muskoxen are usually found in a herd, and defend themselves by forming a circle, horns facing outward.  This fellow, all alone, was probably an older male, cast out from the herd, and not too likely to survive his next encounter with wolves.  Because they are used to forming a huddle, this fellow let us walk quite close to him before he ambled away.  I was thrilled to see him as I’ve always wanted to see a muskox.  I wasn’t sure they were real.  Such a prehistoric looking creature.  One can only begin to imagine what it’s like to be a muskox.

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Muskox desecrating ancient Thule site or adding to the scenery.

While in Conningham Bay, amidst a plethora of polar bears, and just after we’d seen a large pod of beluga whales in a small bay, we had a chance to get a good and close look at this beautiful snowy owl.  The snowy owl is one of my favorite birds.  This fellow seemed to be having a slow morning basking in the sun and wasn’t bothered by us at all.

(As well as the pod of belugas, we also saw some narwhal and a minke whale on the trip.  Sadly, I’ve no photos of them for you.)

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Snowy owl

We saw many polar bears on the trip – I think about a dozen. Of course I had hoped we might see a bear or two, especially from the safe distance of a ship or zodiac.  (Unlike last year on my kayak trip, when I really DID NOT want to see a polar bear!)  Our first sighting was while crossing massive Baffin Bay – we saw a bear way out at sea on a massive collection of sea ice.  We also saw the mother and cub and the swimming bears in Bellot Strait.  But the best day was near the end of the voyage, when we came upon a number of bears feeding on some beluga whale carcasses on the shore.  (The carcasses were probably killed by local hunters, harvesting the fat, or muktuk, an Inuit delicacy.) Because they were full, the big males fed side by side without animosity, and we saw 2 and 3 at a time.  They weren’t bothered by us either, and we had a long look at them, several bears spread out over several miles of shoreline.   The big males weight about 1200 pounds, and looked powerful and healthy, with thick, rich coats.  What a rare privilege, to see a polar bear in the wild.  I don’t think I could see one in a zoo without my heart sinking, knowing what that bear is missing.

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Closer view of one of the white dots.

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This bear looks like a young bear to me.  I love the action of the birds – can’t you just hear them calling?

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This is a big, mature male - photo by Ken Burton

This is a big, mature male – photo by Ken Burton

Post lunch nap

Post lunch nap – photo by Ken Burton

According to Aaron, the expedition leader, who has spent years in the Arctic, polar bears can fall from the sky and spring from the ground.  In other words, they can be very difficult to see.  I had a sense of that when one swam along the shore, amongst the ice floating there.  Looking for all the world like ice.  For that reason, we never went to shore without our safety crew.

Marco, Ken, Cody and Aaron, the One Ocean Bear Patrol Team.

Marco, Ken, Cody and Aaron, the One Ocean Bear Patrol Team.

Although they are always prepared, and have in the past had to leave beaches quickly to avoid bear encounters, I’m happy to report they have never had to shoot a bear.  The team spent a long time checking out the sites before we landed – looking in every nook and cranny.

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Not an ice berg.

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If I haven’t mentioned it yet, I was very impressed with the ethics of the One Ocean Expedition crew.  Because I was on the ship as the ship doctor, I was treated as part of the crew, and had a great behind the scenes look at the logistics of running such an expedition.  It was really fun to be part of it all, and to get to know the amazing staff.  (I had my own uniform and my own radio!  Sadly, I didn’t get to drive the zodiac.)  They practice the best kind of wilderness travel, showing respect for the artifacts, the local people, the wilderness, and the animals we encountered.  They were careful not to stress the animals or cause a close encounter with them.  We left only foot prints.  I would highly recommend them to anyone considering an Arctic or Antarctic cruise, and I definitely hope to be traveling with them again.  Thanks so much for the amazing experience One Ocean.

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NW Passage III – Bellot Strait

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Bellot Strait

This is the third instalment on my trip through the Northwest Passage this summer, on the One Ocean Expedition from Greenland to Cambridge Bay, following the path of Franklin.

 Click to hear Stan Rogers sing “The Northwest Passage”

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I want to share some photos of my favourite spot from the voyage – the passage through Bellot Strait.  This is a narrow passage between Somerset Island and the Boothia Peninsula, the most northernly point of North America.  It is also the place where the waters of the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans meet.  While Franklin did not pass through here, nowhere else symbolizes the Northwest Passage more than this spectacular place.

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The meeting of two oceans must have created a fertile environment, because everywhere we looked we saw animals.  The seals were numerous, and very curious, and came up close to the zodiacs where we were out exploring earlier in the day.  We also watched a mother and cub polar bear as they passed by, swimming from one island to the next, and then climbing up the cliff.  We saw a unconcerned bearded seal sunning himself on an iceberg in a quiet bay.  We saw a muskox grazing on the grass of the strait, and we saw 4 polar bears swimming in the water alongside us as we went through the strait.

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Bearded seal

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You will have to take my word for it, but in this photo are the grazing muskox and 2 swimming polar bears.

The strait is narrow and the current is strong, and so we had to time our passage with the tides.  This happened to be late in the evening, near sunset, and so it was a magical journey.  The wind and water were calm, and it was a lovely and peaceful evening on the upper deck of the ship, travelling west towards the setting sun.  Everyone was out on deck, and we were all filled with the wonder and beauty of the experience, some 100 people with full hearts.  So much so that we broke into song, and sang a few rousing choruses of Stan’s song.  It was a time I hope I never forget.

Sunset on lichen

Sunset on lichen

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Leaving Bellot Strait

Mom and I on deck

Mom and I on deck

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Northwest Passage, Part II

Arctic tundra, ,with rusted oil barrel decorations

Arctic tundra, ,with rusted oil barrel decorations

One of the things that most surprised me about my trip through the Northwest Passage this summer, on the One Ocean Expedition which sailed from Greenland to Cambridge Bay Canada, was the sheer number of sites with remnants of previous cultures, both ancient and newer. I imagined the Arctic as a vast and untracked land, but in some places, it’s easy to see the tracks of those who’ve been before me.

We saw many examples of Dorset culture homes in the high Arctic.  These people, who lived in the Arctic about 2000 years ago, build small square homes partially dug into the soil.  The walls were reinforced with large flat stones, and there was always a raised platform for sleeping on.  The doorway was low and narrow, to keep the cold out.  The roof was made of skin.  I’ve been to many of these sites, both this year while cruising, and last year while kayaking. It’s amazing how numerous they are.

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And at most of the Dorset sites, there are the remains of Thule houses as well.  The Thule people came along after the Dorset people, about 1000 years ago.  Their homes are distinctly different, as they contain whale bones.  The Thule figured out how to hunt whales, and this seems to have been their main food source.  So the roofs of the homes were supported by the huge rib bones of the bowhead whale, and everywhere near these sites are old whale bones, now painted with the graffiti of orange lichen.  These homes seem a little bigger, were often round, and at least the ones I saw suggested that they may have lived in larger communities.

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Along side the remains of the Dorset and Thule people, there are also a surprising amount of evidence of the the British explorations of the Northwest Passage.  John Franklin set out in 1845 amidst great fanfare to find the route through to the Pacific, and he and his crew of some 134 men, and 2 ships, the Erebus and the Terror, where never seen again.  Its now known that he overwintered on Beechey Island, and the following season became locked in the ice near King William Island.  Of course, the Parks Canada expedition to discover the final resting place of the Erebus was successful in 2014.  Our ship, the Vavilov, and many of the One Ocean crew, were actually part of the search party!  (I was lucky enough to arrive in Gjoa Haven, on King William Island, just a few days later, for work, and so I met a few other folks on that journey.)  The story is fascinating for so many reasons – imagine what it must have been like to journey so far from home, into such an unknown land.  They were in many ways woefully unprepared.  The story of the search for the Northwest Passage, and for Franklin, is a long and sad example of the sheer stupidity and arrogance of colonial thinking.  The British Navy seemed to learn not one thing from the Inuit over several decades of exploration.  Many more exploration parties would have perished without the help of Inuit guides and hunters, a fact the British seemed determined to ignore.

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We stopped at Beechey Island, which is in the high Arctic.  While I can appreciate that it is a wonderfully safe harbour for a ship, its hard to imagine a more bleak place in all the world to spend a winter.  We were there in summer, on a grey and rainy day, with the temperature close to freezing.  As far as the eye can see, the land is rock and only rock.  The very few plants that grow are few and far between. It is a completely desolate land.

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Beechey Island on a summer day

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Possibly the only plant on Beechey Island

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A lonely place for a grave – from 1846

There are 4 graves from the men who died during that first winter – infections, lead poisoning, scurvy, tuberculosis and starvation are what killed most of the men.  There is also, further down the beach, remmants of rock walled building, and the staves of numerous barrels.  Search parties left supplies on the beach in case Franklin returned. We saw graves in many places – British, Dorset, Thule and Inuit people died in that harsh land.

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Perhaps one of the biggest highlights of the trip for me was having a talk from one of the marine archeologists who dove on the Erebus last summer and again this summer. It was so exciting to hear about the dive, and the finds so far.  (It will likely take a year or two before they can actually enter the ship – currently the entry ways are blocked by timbers.) The ship is mostly intact, and as they explore the ship, they will no doubt find all manner of artifacts.  There is even hope of perhaps finding the ships logs. (The British documented everything, and so much is known about the ship, its stores, and the expedition plans.)

Travelling on the path of Franklin is certainly a different experience from travelling with Franklin. I am sure he can’t imagine how easy it is to navigate the Northwest Passage in 2015. And the food is better too. Although I wouldn’t have minded having access to the 1000 plus library of books he carried on his voyage.

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Keeping Canada Alive

Sometimes you just have to sit back and observe the unfolding events of your life with wonder.  The way themes arise, fall away, reoccur.  I believe that these observations are touchstones on our path through this lifetime, and like a good map or a well worn path, they can help tell us where we are, and where we are going.  Most of the time that is in an unexpected direction, a path we did not know we were even seeking.  Its important to notice those themes, to pay very close attention to them, to see what our heart is telling us, or more often, what the universe is trying to tell us.  Its a kind of listening to the buried, beating heart of our life line.

So I find it curious that my path of late seems to be intersecting with media.  One the surface its about no more than being in the right place at the right time, but listening with the heart tells me its also more.  It was only this spring that I blogged, as an aside, about my quiet but burning desire to make documentary films, especially about the north.  And while that hasn’t exactly happened as I’d imagined, it is happening. On the Northwest Passage trip this summer I was interviewed for a German documentary film and photographed and interviewed for a travel magazine article.  And I’m going to be featured on CBC television in a few weeks as part of a documentary series on health care in Canada, called Keeping Canada Alive.

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I was reluctant to participate in the project when I was first approached.  I have no interest in ‘scripted reality’ shows, and I also see how the media can manipulate words and stories to feed controversy.  But my interactions with the fine folks at Force Four Entertainment in Vancouver soon convinced me that they were a professional organization committed to telling the real story.

The premise for the 6 part series is fantastic – it is 24 hours in the life of health care in Canada.  Some 60 film crews went to 24 cities across Canada and filmed what they saw over a 24 hour period.  The entire show was filmed during a day in May.  Its a great snapshot of our health care system at work.   You can see the trailer here.

I’m not at all comfortable in front of a camera – I don’t even like getting my photo taken.  But I feel strongly that the stories of northern Canadians, the lives of the incredible people I meet daily in the Yellowknife ER, need to be told.  Since moving to the north I’ve meet so many people who’ve had young children die that I’ve lost count.  (I can’t think of anyone I’ve met in southern Canada that has lost a small child due to illness – of course it happens there too, but its much more rare.)  I’ve heard the saddest stories from suicidal patients – stories of so much pain, and hardship, and aloneness, such heartbreaking losses, that I am pretty sure I would not have survived what these people have survived.  I meet homeless people every day, I know them by name, and I am impressed with their toughness and their ability to survive in the harshest of lands.  I have first hand experience of knowing the difficulties faced by Inuit patients who live hundreds of miles from a doctor and a hospital.

These stories are not unique to Yellowknife, or the north, but they play a big part in my window on health care here, and I feel that the system could do so much more to support people.  Complex issues like suicide, addictions, homelessness and poverty are not health care issues, they are social issues that lead to significantly increased rates of death and illness, and they can’t be solved at the health care level.  And I understand that because these issues are complex that they are not easy to solve – indeed, we may not even understand what is needed to solve them.  But I think we need to do more for those amongst us that have the greatest needs.  We live in a society where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.  And I am not sure my countrymen really understand that when you are poor, the deck is really stacked against you, and there may not be much you can do to change that.  While on the other hand, if you go to medical school, you will have a very good income and a guaranteed job forever.  You just have to show up and your star will rise.  But really, its only being lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time that makes it so.  There but for the grace of God go I.

So I said yes, with trepidation.  The film crew wanted to start out the filming on Houseboat 28 – a day in the life, so to speak.  As it was May, I was anxious that the ice on the lake would be half out and half in, and the crew would have difficulty even getting to the place due to open water.  Fortunately the weather cooperated and they only had to walk one plank over the open water at the shore, and then haul their gear on foot out to the houseboat.

I spent a day with the crew – at home and then for a shift at work.  It was challenging for me – once I put my head down at work I couldn’t really focus on the film crew, and I suspect that made it harder for them.  It was a bit uncomfortable for the rest of the ER crew too, who naturally didn’t really want to be on national television while at work either. (I had a faint, and I recognize unrealistic worry, that I might actually kill someone on national television.)  In the end I did not get much of a chance to discuss the issues near and dear to my heart, although I am hoping that the story of one fellow who was filmed in the ER that day will touch on those issues.

The series starts this Sunday, October 4th at 9 pm, and will run over 6 weeks.  My 5 minutes of fame will air on October 18th.  The entire show will also be available online here, or view the cbc.ca website.  h

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