Chalk murals brighten spirits, garage doors in Port Moody neighbourhood

This is a part of a series reprising stories I covered during the COVID-19 pandemic for The Tri-City News.

What started as a little activity to draw chalk rainbows on the pavement has transformed a Port Moody neighbourhood into a gallery of giant colourful murals that is bringing people together and lifting spirits during the COVID-19 lockdown.

Ladawne Shelstad said she was going through a rough emotional patch early in the pandemic when her six-year-old daughter, Maddyn, suggested they create rainbows on the road in front of their Klahanie townhouse.

“They’re a symbol of hope,” Maddyn said.

Working together, Shelstad found the mother and daughter project soothed her anxiety. It also fired her creativity. So they extended their effort to their garage door, decorating it with a giant heart.

When Shelstad discovered one of her neighbours was a nurse, she doodled on paper a design for a mural of thanks she could chalk on her garage door.

A project manager in the communications industry who’d taken some art courses “years ago,” Shelstad found inspiration in stained glass windows. Using tape and a little elbow grease to get the wooden doors clean of dust and grime so the chalk could adhere, she and Maddyn did one mural, and then another as neighbours enquired whether their garages could be included in the project as well. A donation of chalk helped push them along.

Shelstad said the one to eight hours she spent working on each mural were “completely uplifting.” She met some neighbours for the first time, learned about their own interests and challenges navigating the pandemic. Three of them are health care workers, she discovered, along with a teacher who’s coping with doing her job from home, and even some people who’ve lost their job.

“We’re all part of the same thing,” she said. “We’re in this together, but apart.”
Other neighbours enquired about designing their own murals.

Before long every garage door in Shelstad’s lane had been decorated and the gallery has even extended to other lanes in the complex, some fences and the brick rostrum at the entrance to their street.

Shelstad said the project has showed her the power creativity can have to help people get through tough times. So others can explore the healing salve of their own expression, she’s also assembled kits of chalk and art supplies, with proceeds going to Share family and community services.

“You find what gives you joy,” she said. “The whole neighbourhood has embraced something. We’ve been in this glorious bubble of positivity.”

Port Moody woman’s ratings of Skype backgrounds gets worldwide attention

This is part of a look back at pandemic stories I’ve written for The Tri-City News.

When Jessie Bahrey settles in to her Port Moody apartment to catch up on the nightly news, she’s not noting the latest federal assistance program being announced by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, or MSNBC correspondent John Heilemann’s analysis of the American response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

She’s looking for the succulent that would add a pop of colour to the bookshelves behind Trudeau’s head or what fruit Heilemann has ripening in the bowl on his kitchen counter.
Bahrey, along with her Washington, D.C.-based partner, Claude Taylor, have become the pre-eminent Twitter authorities on what’s going on behind TV journalists, politicians, pundits and even a few scattered celebrities as they’re being interviewed from home or office on virtual platforms like Skype and Zoom.

For the office manager at Muldoon Greenhouses in Port Coquitlam, her newfound avocation started as a bit of a lark between the long-distance couple. But in just three weeks, their Room Rater Twitter account, @ratemyskyperoom, has grown to more than 133,000 followers, some of them the very targets of their sharp eyes and gentle humour.

“Everybody was talking about them but not doing the rating,” Bahrey said of their background critiques. “This was supposed to be a fun little thing we did for giggles.”

Shifting each other off according to their respective time zones and work schedules, the pair spend about 11 hours a day watching various American and Canadian news programs, taking screen grabs and dishing out their opinions. So far, they’ve posted more than 1,300 times. Neither has a background in interior design, although Bahrey admitted they’re both “news junkies.”

She said aside from the environs in which the interview is being conducted, they also pay attention to the lighting and camera angle.

Bahrey said it’s been illuminating to see how people used to working in controlled studios, where the lighting is perfect and backgrounds are designed to complement rather than distract, have adjusted to the more intimate and ad hoc settings of their homes.

Some, like former deputy prime minister John Manley, and New York Times correspondent Trip Gabriel, haven’t fared so well. Their low-angle perspectives that emphasize the blank walls and ceiling behind them make them look more like “hostage videos,” she said.

“Blink twice if we should call the police,” Bahrey wrote of Manley’s appearance.
Others show careful attention to detail.

Bahrey praised musician John Legend’s interview, conducted as he sat at his piano, a bookcase of Grammy awards to his left and the rest of his bright living room fading back into the distance.

“All the way back as far as you could see, it was just peaceful,” she said, adding the couple has purposely avoided doing too many celebrity critiques as they have the wealth and image self-awareness to ensure they have nice backgrounds.

Former First Ladies Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton also got raves.

Some targets of Room Rater’s reviews have even reached out through direct messages for tips. MSNBC’s Heilemann gave them a heads up to watch the fruit bowl as it evolved through several on-air appearances then culminated with a guest appearance by his great dane.

Will Reeve, a reporter on ABC’s Good Morning America, reached out to rebut the couple’s criticism of his no-pants appearance on the morning news magazine program.

Bahrey said seeing so many prominent and important people in their home environment, with all the distractions that can come with it, has helped humanize them.

“The biggest thing is they are very much like us,” she said. “Just because they’re famous, doesn’t mean they don’t struggle with the same things we do.”

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SCREENGRAB Port Moody’s Jessie Bahrey is paying close attention to backgrounds during Skype interviews on TV, including her own appearance on Global National.

Bahrey said the project has been a fun distraction from watching all the doom and gloom of growing infection numbers and death rates.

“It breaks up the bad news cycle,” she said. “It gives us a sense of community, that we’re all in this together.”

Pandemic resurrects Elvis

This is the first in a retrospective of stories from the COVID-19 pandemic. All appeared in The Tri-City News.

It took a pandemic to revive Elvis.

Or, at least, one of his impersonators, who’s resurrecting his career by bringing his act to neighbourhoods on lockdown because of the COVID-19 public health emergency.

For 30 years, Coquitlam’s Darren Lee was one of the best tribute artists of the famed performer who died in 1977.

In 1997, Lee won the World Elvis Championship in Memphis, Tennessee. He played Las Vegas for 11 years, followed by a four-year run in Maui.

But then, a couple of years ago, a business partnership went bad and — long story short — Lee left the island and found himself back in British Columbia.

“My self-motivation at that point was pretty nil,” he said, adding the lack of gigs eventually neccesitated taking a job driving deliveries for a restaurant supply company so he could get back on his feet.

Still, Lee felt a hunka hunka burning love to perform.

“Your voice has been singing for all these years, your legs are used to doing all these moves,” he said. “I’m older, but I’m not done.”

Opportunity knocked when Lee’s brother in Edmonton, Robin Kelly, launched Facebook Live performances of his own Elvis tribute act to weather the shutdowns of entertainment venues and large gatherings because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The two collaborated weekly, accepting tips by PayPal.

But Lee’s upstairs neighbours weren’t as appreciative.

So he got in his car, popped some backing tracks into the stereo, rolled down the windows, balanced his phone on the console and went for a drive.

The rolling Facebook performances caught the attention of a friend in Port Coquitlam, who invited Lee to join her neighbourhood’s nightly 7 p.m. cacophony of appreciation for frontline workers. His guest appearance turned into an impromptu two-hour concert that only ended when his car’s battery died.

Even though the audience was no more than 10 people — all properly practising physical distancing — Elvis was back.

“It was the biggest audience I’ve had in months,” Lee said. “You want to get that applause. I thrive on it.”

Lee said he feels his temperature rising. In fact, he’s taking requests for guest appearances in other neighbourhoods. And his brain is flaming with plans to reinvigorate his career when the health emergency has passed.

“I’m an entertainer, it’s what I do,” he said.

When friends open a brewery

There has been more than a few beer stories in these pages. But this latest one has a bit of a twist.

These newly-minted brewers are friends; they ride in our cycling group. Or, at least they did, until they decided to open a brewery.

Actually, their new venture is been brewing for more than a couple of years. But as any entrepreneur knows, getting a new enterprise successfully off the ground all comes down to crunch time.

Thankfully, they were able to take a few moments out of their hectic days leading up to their grand opening to allow me to help tell their story.

Spry seniors pilot Big Bike for charity

As the Tri-City News’ ad-hoc cycling reporter, pretty much any story on two wheels gets sent my way. But not all bikes have just two wheels. Or one rider.

You may not be able to teach an old dog new tricks, but you can get him on a bike every couple of years.
At 106 years, Don Simpson certainly qualifies as old. In fact, according to Phil Reist, the driver of the Heart and Stroke Foundation’s “Big Bike,” he’s likely the oldest participant to ever ride the 29-passenger behemoth bicycle that helps raise money and awareness to prevent heart disease.
Simpson was the captain of a contingent of spry seniors from the Mayfair Terrace retirement home in Port Coquitlam who took the Big Bike for a 20-minute spin on the roads around Coquitlam Centre last Friday. It wasn’t his first rodeo, though.
Simpson cycled the Big Bike when he was much younger — two years ago when he was 104. But he also remembers riding his bike as a boy around Vancouver’s Stanley Park and attending the six-day bike races at the old China Creek velodrome.
“That was our stomping ground,” he said.
So when it came time to climb aboard the gargantuan single-geared machine, Simpson knew exactly where he wanted to be. He ignored the requests of a photographer and cameraman to mount an outboard seat so they could get a clear shot of him pedalling, and instead scrambled — slowly, and with a bit of help — to the middle row at the very back. After all, who’s going to argue with someone his age?
And with a few last-minute instructions from Reist, a shake of the maracas and other noisemakers to ensure passersby notice the big bike — like they’re going to miss it? — they were off.

 

Beer brings new moms together for support

This story appeared originally in The Tri-City News

Alex Turner was a new mom when she ran headlong into postpartum depression.
She didn’t have it. But the former television reporter felt deeply connected to the news coverage of a young Burnaby mother who’d gone missing for three weeks until her body was found near Bowen Island.
In a heart-wrenching post on Facebook, the woman’s husband said she had been struggling with breastfeeding her newborn son, but without a community of moms around her to provide support and reassurance, she gave into her feelings of guilt and anxiety.
“I could feel her struggle,” said Turner, whose own son was about the same age as the woman’s child. “You have a new person you have to care for, yet you can feel you’re so alone.”
So when Turner became pregnant with her second child, she was determined not to let herself become isolated by creating her own community of new moms who could lean on and learn from each other, who would appreciate the opportunity to just get out of the house.
A year later, Turner’s Tri-Cities Moms Monthly “Meeting” group has more than 500 members from New Westminster to Maple Ridge, several dozen of whom gathered with their infants and toddlers for their regular assembly Thursday at the outdoor patio behind Yellow Dog Brewery in Port Moody.
Turner said while social media like Facebook and Instagram might provide a refuge for new moms, digital connections aren’t a substitute for real, personal interaction.
“You need to come together face-to-face,” she said.
And what better place to do that than the family-friendly environs of one of Port Moody’s craft breweries where moms can have adult conversations while their babies and toddler roll around on blankets spread on the soft wood chip ground of the expansive and shaded back outdoor patio?
“We’re in this together,” Turner said.

The passion of Cosimo Gericatano

One of the (rare) perks of being a journalist is being able to share some stories that are so cool, you’re walking on Cloud 9 when you leave the assignment.
One of my newsroom colleagues heard about a retired Italian engineer, who also ran a Ferrari and Lambourghini car dealership for several years, with a passion for painting reproductions of masterworks by the likes of Da Vinci, Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Gaugin, Renoir. We made arrangements to meet, but nothing could prepare us for the splendour in Cosimo Gericatano’s house.
Every wall, and even some of the ceilings, were hung with precise duplications of renowned paintings that adorn the best museums in the world. Mona Lisa, The Girl with the Pearl Earring, The Creation of Adam, Allegory of the Planets and Continents were all there, every brushstroke and subtle hue recreated over hundreds of hours of exacting work.
Hanging with Cosimo was like spending a couple of hours with the Italian gentleman we all aspire to be, from his crisp cotton shirt and pressed trousers, as well as his trimmed grey hair to his encyclopedic knowledge of the paintings and artists he’s reproduced, gleaned from hours of research on the internet and visits to the museums where the originals are displayed. Not to mention the red Testarossa parked in his pristine garage.
Here’s the link to our story. And here’s the photos I shot.

There will be mud

While the major rainstorm that was forecast held off, dozens of riders still got down and dirty at Saturday’s annual Donkey Cross cyclocross race in Port Coquitlam’s Castle Park.
The race was the first of seven that comprise the Lower Mainland Cyclocross series.
Cyclocross is like steeplechase racing on two wheels. Riders navigate a winding, undulating course for several laps that includes obstacles, a metres-long “beach” of soft sand, and even a stretch of snow from a local arena dumped into a corner. The sport originated as a form of off-season training for road cyclists in Northern Europe who would often challenge each other to get to the coffee shop in the next village the quickest. Often, that meant traversing farmers’ fields and hopping fences and hedges, elements that are still honoured in modern cyclocross racing.

It they built it, will they climb?

A version of this article appeared in The Tri-City News.

It’s one thing to build a multi-use path, quite another to get walkers and cyclists to use it.

Port Moody accomplished the former with its $4.627-million upgrade of Gatensbury Avenue to make the steep, winding connector between it and the city and Coquitlam safer for motorists and add a $285,000 multi-use path (MUP) along its western flank for pedestrians and people on bikes.

The project was identified as an early priority in Port Moody’s master transportation plan, which was endorsed by council in March 2017. That plan will see the city invest more than $31 million over the next 20 years to make it easier to get around the city, and encourage more sustainable modes of transportation, like walking and cycling.

Ascending Gatensbury, though, remains a test of fortitude, leg strength and lung capacity.

Already the climb to the top has been dubbed the “Gatensbury Gasp” on social media by some pedestrians who have ascended its 12% average pitch over 1.1 kilometres since it reopened to traffic at the end of May.

But what does that mean for cyclists?

Always up for a good bike story, I set out to find out.

I’m not a climber. Descending is more my jam.

I ride up hills and mountains because I have to get to the top so I can turn around and speed back down.

For the most part, cyclists have avoided Gatensbury for years because of its narrow lanes that lacked a shoulder and its pocked pavement that made it unsafe at worst, uncomfortable at best.

Oh yeah, there’s also its perilous steepness, which ranges from 11.1% at the bottom to 18.3% in its final rise.

Gatensbury climb
The climb averages 12% over its 1.1 km total length, but there are sections that exceed 18%.

By comparison, Mont Ventoux, one of the iconic climbs of the Tour de France, peaks at 12% and the Muur van Geraardsbergen in Belgium, that has been a decisive climb in big-time professional bike races like the Tour of Flanders, rises an average of 9.3% over its 1,075 metres over bumpy, tire-eating cobbles that can rattle the fillings from your teeth.

The pavement on Gatensbury’s new MUP is smooth tarmac, not yet heaved by straying tree roots or ravaged by winter freezes and thaws.

The path is also wide — maybe not wide enough to allow teetering cyclists to weave their own switchbacks to stay upright, but certainly wide enough for pedestrians and riders going uphill to pass each other easily.

According to Strava, an online app that allows cyclists and runners to upload data from their GPS devices, 43 cyclists have completed the segment called “Todds Gatensbury climb,” which is .94 km from the base of the hill at Henry and Grant streets to Bartlett Avenue at the top, this year. The fastest was Matthew Cox, a Port Moody cyclist who made it to the top in four minutes, four seconds. That’s an average speed of 13.9 km/h and well off the all-time record of 17.7 km/h by Brett Wakefield back in 2015, when the road was in much worse shape and there was no MUP. Some notable athletes have also tackled Gatensbury, including Canadian Olympic triathlete Simon Whitfield — he did it in 3:49 in 2013.

At the start of the MUP, after a warmup pedal from The Tri-City News’ office in Port Coquitlam, I could only dream of such blinding uphill speed. In fact, I just wanted to survive without my knees, or heart, exploding.

The climbing starts at a modest 3.9% at Henry and Moody streets but by the time it hits its first switchback, it touches 17%. It’s about then I realize I’m still in second gear. I veer into a driveway to change gears because doing so under high torque in a difficult climb can blow apart a derailleur.

The second switchback is consistently around 15% but goes as steep as 18.2%.

But the nastiness is just getting started.

Looking ahead, the road straightens, the gradient moderates slightly and the end seems in sight. The bike computer says I’m doing 6.6 km/h but, gasping for breath and rocking side-to-side, it feels like I’m standing still.

Then, the road veers left to reveal its cruelest twist: more climbing, some of it is as steep as 17.3%.

I reach Bartlett Avenue 7:09 after I started the climb, the 25th-fastest — or 18th slowest — ascent of the segment recorded on Strava so far this year.

As I turn to  cross the road and collect my reward — a speedy descent on Gatensbury’s smooth, new pavement — a cyclist on an electric-assist bike with fat, cushy tires, cruises nonchalantly by on the uphill side. He’s smiling, with barely a bead of sweat on his brow.

Maybe he has the right idea.

Requiem for a friend, and mentor

We all have mentors. They’re the people who show us the way, whether they know it or not.
Mine was Ron Kuzyk. He was a steelworker and a hell of a photojournalist who worked the weekend shift we came to share for a stretch at the Burlington Post, where I started my career.
Ron passed away this week.

In 1984, I was just out of journalism school and determined to use a camera as my storytelling tool of choice. Circumstances that summer connected me to George Tansley, then the chief photographer at the Post. He said he could offer me some shifts to relieve his weekend guy who spent his weekdays working at Stelco and sometimes needed a break from the grind.

That guy was Ron.

We probably first met in the studio/darkroom one of those weekends; he was likely passing through to collect something, and I was probably trying to figure out how I too could get some of the great shots that were printed and hung on the walls of the studio and down the hall outside it. I particularly remember a colour wintry silhouette of a kid balancing on a fence, arms and leg splayed out; I loved that photo.

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My friend, and mentor, Ron Kuzyk, was the king of the silhouette. He loved shooting them, even as editors told him they needed to see faces in the newspaper. Of course, when Ron came back from an assignment with one of his beautiful silhouettes, it inevitably ran in the paper, usually on the front page.

Of course it, and many of the others, was shot by Ron.

Especially the sports.

I knew I wanted to be able to shoot sports like Ron.

He could capture peak action like nobody’s business, but he also had a keen eye for those quiet moments, like the kid stealing a glance back at his coach, the consoling hand on a player’s shoulder, the goofiness of 5 year-old t-ballers.

And, amazingly, he didn’t need big time pro athletes or glorious bright arena lighting to get his great sports photos. He made them in dark high school gyms, dusty sandlot baseball diamonds and pocked minor soccer pitches.

Over the course of that summer, as Ron and I crossed paths, we became buddies. He encouraged me, talked me through the frustrations of learning how to shoot with the Hasselblad because the big colour transparencies made for better front page colour reproduction. But mostly he showed me the way with his eye and his instincts.

Whenever I had the chance, I studied his contact sheets, checked out his prints, paid attention to his byline (although, by the second week I was already pretty good at spotting a Ron shot in the paper), and when my shooting shifts came, I distilled what I learned to get in the right position for a good baseball shot, look all around at a spot news scene to find that storytelling moment, seek out a fun juxtaposition at a community event.

When I happened to be in the darkroom and he popped by for a studio shot, I studied how he set up the lights and, more importantly, how he made his subjects feel at ease, joked with them, broke through their guard to find something that captured the story they were there to tell.

Ron was the most natural, instinctual photojournalist I ever met. More importantly, he was also the most fun. Because as much as we liked to bitch about shooting pet of the week or real estate features, as much as the repetitiveness of shooting the same cycle of community events year after year wore down your creativity, he really got a kick out of his job, and that joy came through in every one of his frames (well maybe not the photos of used cars for dealer ads).

The next summer, all the lessons I’d absorbed from Ron paid off when I landed a full-time gig at Oshawa This Week.

On the weekends I wasn’t working, I often came back to Burlington to visit my family and hang with Ron. Usually over beers, sometimes in the vicinity of naked women dancing on stages. We kibitzed and kvetched as professional colleagues. We also complained, because that’s what journalists do when we get together (oh, if only we knew then what was coming for our industry, for our profession…)

But when Ron finally made the decision to cut his ties — and the big paycheque — to Stelco, he was over the moon with delight, thrilled to be working full-time at his passion even if it meant keeping his heap blue car that smelled like an ashtray on the road a little longer.

There were often adventures on those weekends, usually involving Post sports reporters Kevin Nagel, Dave Rashford and Tim Whitnell as well; road hockey in the back parking lot on New Street, some ice hockey games, the annual Metroland slo-pitch tournament, a concert or two.

When a group of us bought a tournament package for the 1987 Canada Cup series, Ron somehow managed to get photo accreditation for the climactic final so when Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky and the rest of that amazing Canadian team were celebrating their victory on the ice at Copp’s Coliseum, we were peering through our binoculars from the upper deck at Ron sliding around working the scrums. Oh yeah, he scored an amazing photo of the two superstars celebrating, jumping into each other’s arms behind the net in his corner. Like I said, Ron had great instincts for timing.

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Ron Kuzyk and a great love, and eye, for shooting sports. He also had that innate instinct for being in the right place at the right time with the right lens. Oh yeah, and also for finagalling accreditation for bigtime events even though he worked for a community paper.

When I headed west in 1991, our contact became more sporadic.

He came out once, riding shotgun in his brother’s big rig. I drove him around, showing him my new turf, including a bar or two that may or may not have had a brass pole. I think the motel in Port Coquitlam where he stayed burned down shortly after his visit.

Again with the timing.

When I was home for a visit, we’d go for beers or lunch and shoot the shit about old times, compare notes about our current situations.

But I’ve always felt Ron’s guiding hand, tried to follow his eye, even as I forged my own path as a community photojournalist.

I know the changes to our industry weren’t easy for Ron. He was old-school, driven to get the shot and to hell with all the bullshit of the business.

After he left the Post, we caught up a few times on my visits back to Ontario. I think one of those times I managed to tell him how much impact he’d had on my own career, how those early exchanges in the Post studio set me on my path.

We also tried connecting on social media, but Ron was never one for the Facebook, unless he was trading/peddling his vinyl records. I think he Tweetered about 12 times.

But even as our contact waned, Ron was often in my thoughts. He’s the reason I park myself about three metres back of first base at a baseball game so I can reach second base for a steal or double play, but also can grab a close play at first. He’s the reason I sit instead of stand at the touchline of a soccer match because that means a cleaner background. He’s the reason I keep my eye on the bench near the end of a big game as much as on the playing arena. He’s the reason I’m still trying to emulate that great wintry silhouette of a kid balancing on a fence.

Thanks Ron, my friend. RIP