Seeing It, Naming It – There

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Dunvegan Bridge

In Alberta’s northwest my family and I have lived in Fox Lake, Garden River, La Crete and High Level. The roads are long and distances travelled influence our cost of living. It can be cost effective to travel south for supplies if you are buying in bulk and stocking up. Yet, buying local permits piecemeal buying as needed and supports local business. We buy groceries here at home. And, I will travel south in the year.

Dunvegan – it is a place I travel through on my way south to Grande Prairie; with the suspension bridge crossing the Peace River, it is a place I know by sight; it became a place I would investigate. Fifteen years would pass before indigenous Art, Alberta history and site use would coalesce with it being a fixed name in my mind – Dunvegan. Like other points along the Peace River you descend into this river valley. A road cuts a long two-kilometre gradient into each valley wall, north and south, to ease the braking efforts of heavy-laden transport trucks. At the lowest point, you cross the kilometre-wide Peace River on a yellow and brown suspension bridge. Then you accelerate moving up and out of the river valley – south towards Rycroft, north towards Fairview. Dunvegan is the name given to the plateau area under and surrounding the north side of the bridge.

Seeing Dunvegan – I would see Dunvegan in indigenous paintings at Grande Prairie Art galleries. The contour of the land folding down from a high river bank to plateau holds the eye. With skilled use of colour and light, the painter could draw attention to sacred place and practices. Longing for old ways was found in such Art. Still though, I was not recognizing these paintings as the area I travelled through a couple of times a year.

Dunvegan took hold in my classroom with my students. Each day, along with our school, students and staff read for 15 minutes. ‘Drop Everything And Read’ (DEAR) saw my students return to one book for regular reading, ‘Alberta Ghost Stories.’ One tale in the book told of a ghost sighting in an upper room in one of the old Dunvegan historical buildings. From what I recall, as with most ghost stories, light dwindles well past dusk. A living and breathing mortal is walking outside the house. He feels compelled to look up and sees someone or something looking at him. There is surprise, impact and connection in seeing and in being seen. The tale’s impact is greater finding out that the house has been shut-up for decades with no way in. Readers in my class always discussed what they thought was going on … offering speculation. The story became real to them. Like me, my students and their parents traveled through Dunvegan on their way to Grande Prairie. Often, they would stop at Dunvegan for lunch or a smoke break. The Dunvegan story held their imagination and during a travel break they would investigate as far as they dared. My students’ stories of being in Dunvegan would return with them to class every few months.

Still, haste in my travels got the better of me. I was not yet stopping at Dunvegan in my travels southward. And, it was only a few years ago that I first stopped in at Dunvegan. My wife had spoken about a nursery for spring bedding plants that she and a friend would go to hours south from High Level. She had been talking about Dunvegan Gardens, one of the best nurseries in Alberta. You find it at/on the eastern-most section of the Dunvegan plateau. Located between Fairview and Rycroft, the Dunvegan Gardens serves residents of Grande Prairie and from as far north as High Level.

One time, as she and I came upon the Dunvegan turn-off my wife pointed out the Dunvegan Gardens to me. It was the place she and her friend had been. And, my wife got me to slow down, turn-in and stop at Dunvegan to look around. I was finally connecting the dots – this was Dunvegan. Since that time, perhaps for the last six or seven years, I have been making time to stop and look around with my camera. Good. The Dunvegan site is a beautiful and worthy landscape in all seasons. One of these times I am hoping to pass through the area in late October or early November when the Dunvegan valley is sometimes shrouded in mists.

Dunvegan has been one of the prominent fur trading areas in Alberta. Fort Dunvegan was a trading post. Established by the Northwest Company, the Hudson’s Bay Company would later take over the trading post. A Factor’s house still stands. The site would evolve to hold two Churches, a Roman Catholic mission – St. Charles, and, an Anglican mission later – St. Saviour’s. Behind the Factor’s house is the plateau area upon which are four or five Tipis with poles raised waiting for hide or canvas covers. The site is older than Canadian history, the site being a meeting point or assembly area for indigenous peoples.

Quote to Consider / Inspire – “To photograph is to hold one’s breath, when all faculties converge to capture fleeting reality. It’s at that precise moment that mastering an image becomes a great physical and intellectual joy (Henri Cartier-Bresson).”

Listening to – The Candid Frame: Conversations about Photography podcast and Ibarionex Perello’s time in Japan in December, 2019; being present to situation, setting, light. Good, good.

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