An anniversary

It was 30 years ago today I pointed my little red Toyota Tercel west.

My road and mountain bikes were clamped in the Thule rack on the roof, my camera gear and clothes squirreled in the hatchback.

My first newspaper job in Oshawa, Ont., had been claimed by the 1990 recession. And while a few of us had pooled resources to scrounge up some freelance contracts, I wasn’t done with newspapers and I was hoping newspapers weren’t done with me.

So, with only a vague assurance from @craighodge that there was work to be had in the suburbs of Vancouver, I decided to head west instead of east where I had already secured a job offer at a small daily in Nova Scotia.

My first day on the road, I got as far as Appleton, Wis., even as the car radio crackled with tornado warnings through Illinois.

The second night, I encamped in Butte, Mont., where I watched Nolan Ryan no-hit the Toronto Blue Jays on the motel TV.

I made it to Vancouver on the third day, navigated my way to Port Coqutilam, and a few days later started pulling photo shifts @tricitynews.

It was heady time in the Lower Mainland newspaper business.

Every market had competing papers.

We were a photo department of six shooters, plus freelancers. The photographers who huddled around the light table at the end of every 10-hour shift — @gregkinch, @arlenredekop, @simoneponne, @dougshanks, @marcusoleniuk, @evanseal, @briangiebelhaus, @brianlangdeau, @steveray — all pushed each other to bring out our best.

Mario Bartel storyteller photographer journalist communicator
Blowing off steam between assignments in the studio.

We covered events like the BC Summer and Winter Games, Canada Games, Commonwealth Games, Molson Indy, Grey Cups.

Our bylines may not have been in a daily, but by god we weren’t going to let that stop us from working like we were a daily. Heck, one year we even managed to convince our employer to charter us a plane so we could attend a news photogs’ conference in Spokane, Wash.

The reporters I got to work with — @johnwawrow, @richdalmonte, @mikemcquillan, @katetrotter, @guidomarziali — were all supremely talented and dedicated. We all thought nothing of toiling late into the night if it meant getting the story.

Mario Bartel storyteller photographer journalist communicator
Remember when journalists smoked in the newsroom, kept a mickey of Scotch squirreled in a desk drawer? This guy, John Wawrow, is one of the best old-school reporters I’ve worked with. He’s still hanging on, covering sports for AP in Buffalo.

Of course, the halcyon days didn’t last.

By the mid-1990s we were starting to hear things about reading news stories on WWW services like AOL, exchanging gossip about favourite TV shows on Internet Newsgroups.

Internal politics split up our photo department. Economics started to deplete our ranks. The urgency to roll to late-night scanner calls diminished. The chatter when we gathered at the police tape or the pub grew increasingly dour.

Life started to take on more importance. It was time to find balance.

For 17 years (!) @katiebartel has been my port in the storm of a professional life that became increasingly tumultuous, crashing through changing roles, ownership changes and amalgamations, several publishers, numerous editors, a closure, then ultimately a rebirth.

For eight years, @thelittlering1 has been my light, showing me all that is incredible about life through his eager, inquisitive eyes and wry smile.

Mario Bartel storyteller photographer blogger Vancouver snow

Every day, I marvel a little that I ended up here.

2020: Enough said

It all started so innocently, a couple of stories about local people caught out on cruise ships as a mysterious virus swept through passengers and crew.

Then, more stories on the news about sick people filling hospitals in New York City.

But it took an NBA basketball player testing positive for the novel coronavirus, and the subsequent cancellation of his team’s game that was set to start only moments later that really set 2020 off on its own extraordinary tangent.

Suddenly the reality and seriousness of this new contagion hit home with a resounding thud.

Little did we know at the time just how that thud would reverberate through the year.

My own wife and son were in Arizona, visiting her parents who are snowbirds just outside of Phoenix. My son was excited to see his first NHL game that Thursday night, the Arizona Coyotes vs. his beloved Vancouver Canucks. Alas, it too was cancelled. There were tears.

Then came the scramble to get home before borders were closed. Flights were delayed, worried texts exchanged.

Upon their arrival we headed home where we encamped in self-isolation for two weeks, as prescribed by public health authorities. It all felt a little extreme and overwrought at the time, but in a few weeks, we figured, it would all be over and we could laugh at this weird blip in our routine.

How wrong we were.

The COVID-19 pandemic has coloured virtually every story we told in the Tri-City News since March. In fact, the acronym pretty much auto-fills now every time we type a capital “C.”

The first few weeks of covering the COVID story were a mad scramble just to keep up with reporting on cancellations, closures, and new protocols. As it became apparent this virus would be more than a diversion in the calendar, we settled in for the long haul, looked for stories about people coping, finding their new normal.

We didn’t have to look very hard.

As miserable as 2020 has been — for so many reasons — there have been just as many reasons to celebrate a year that brought out the best in so many people, tested our communities and found them much more resilient and enduring than we’d ever imagined.

In the context of a global pandemic, no story felt too small or mundane, because every one had the potential to offer hope and reassurance we’d all get through this.

Here are some of my favourite photos that accompanied many of those stories. If you click through to the gallery, you’ll be able to read a bit of commentary about each image.

Yoga minstrel brings smiles, bad jokes to Tri-Cities seniors shut in by pandemic

Another story reprising some of my favourites I covered for The Tri-City News during the COVID-19 pandemic.

What do you get when you cross classic sing-a-long tunes by the likes of The Beatles and Dinah Shore, with bad jokes gleaned from books bought from Value Village, as well as a little yoga instruction?

For Chris Ridout, the result is a winning afternoon in the sunshine putting smiles on the faces of seniors shut-in by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ridout has been teaching yoga for 10 years, after a long career teaching business to international students. His clients range from two- to 106-years-old, the latter amongst the several senior homes in the Tri-Cities he visits weekly where he helps keep them limber and teaches them breathing techniques to relax.

But with those facilities off-limits to outsiders during the pandemic to protect the health of residents, Ridout was out of work and the seniors he helped at loose ends.

So he improvised.

Working with management at the various homes on his circuit, Ridout came up with new ways to keep his sessions going, like leading classes from outside while the seniors followed along through the windows of a community room, or putting on personal protective equipment so he could carry on indoors.

Ridout, himself now a senior since he recently turned 65, said the outside connection he brings is important to the residents of facilities like Parkwood Manor in Coquitlam.

“It’s the light at the end of the tunnel,” he said. “It’s a reminder that this is not going to last forever.”

Last Thursday, on a bright, warm spring afternoon, staff at Parkwood placed a few dozen chairs in front of the building and helped others using walkers and wheelchairs take their places in the sunshine and shade for a special visit by their yoga minstrel.

With a guitar slung over his shoulder, a small amp at his feet and a bounce in his legs, Ridout greeted familiar faces from afar, then launched into an hour-long serenade of lively tunes like OblaDi, and Yellow Bird, sprinkled with liberal doses of groan-worthy jokes, some of them bordering on the risqué.

“I like to treat them like the adults they are,” Ridout said.

Many of the approximately 50 seniors sang along, some clapped, a few just dozed in the warm sun, their faces protected by wide-brimmed sombreros supplied by staff. In between sets, Ridout reminds them of the breathing techniques he’d previously taught to help ease their anxieties.

And when the show was over, everyone got an ice cream treat.

It was, Ridout said, like spending the afternoon with old friends.

Pandemic forces youth basketball program to take it to the street

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

As some summer youth basketball programs struggle to find a way to operate amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, Coquitlam’s Panther Hoops is taking it to the streets — or, more specifically, the parking lot — thanks to the collective effort of some volunteer parents.

Shut out of school gyms and community centres that are mostly still closed, and loathe to overstay its welcome at some outdoor facilities like Port Coquitlam’s Evergreen Park, Panther Hoops’ head coach Doug Dowell said the program needed a more permanent solution to make its plans to put on a full schedule of summer camps viable and sustainable.

“The pressure was on us to find a place we could call our own.”

That’s when several parents decided if they built it, the kids could play.

Over the course of a rainy weekend in June, when pretty much every weekend was damp, they cleaned up detritus from the parking lot behind BC Christian Academy where the program is based, bored deep holes into the pavement, assembled four full-sized basketball nets with glass backboards and poured concrete to lock them in place. A welder was brought in to add another level of security.

The result is an urban playground worthy of a Woody Harrelson streetball movie, set against a backdrop of an auto repair shop, crooked fibreboard fencing and stacks of shipping containers.

More importantly, Dowell said, the makeshift courts have allowed Panther Hoops to offer co-ed day camps for players aged 7 to 16, and evening camps three times a week for more experienced high school players.

Dowell said the camps are an important element of Panther Hoops’ broadened mandate to serve the wider community after it started 13 years ago as a prep program at BC Christian to develop elite players who could contend for post-secondary scholarship opportunities.

The public health emergency threatened to derail that progress.

Dowell said he quickly recognized moving outdoors was the solution.

“With this whole COVID thing, people are on the edge,” he said. “We wanted to get the kids out the door.”

With no gym at BC Christian, Panther Hoops has always led a nomadic existence, so it ventured as far as Pitt Meadows to find open-air facilities it could use for small groups of kids working on their individual skills.

Dowell said one of the biggest challenges was getting his staff of experienced coaches that includes longtime high school coach Rich Goulet, former Cape Breton University bench boss David Petroziello, and former Pitt Meadows Marauders star player Scott Walton, to deconstruct routines they’ve run for years and reassemble them as individual drills that don’t require sharing the ball or close-quarters defence.

He said the exercise has been refreshing.

“In a way, it’s helped us realign ourselves.”

The end result, Dowell said, is a more innovative, free-form approach to basketball, more akin to creative streetball than the regimented strategies and patterns of the sport when it’s played in the gym and a final score matters.

“It’s made you get more into the ingenuity,” Dowell said. “It’s a missing part of the game.”

The weekly camps, that run through to the end of August, have full safety procedures in place, like a staged entrance to the outdoor facility after each participant has answered a health questionnaire, had their temperature checked as well as recorded, and their hands sanitized. Players must also bring their own ball which can be used only by them exclusively, although it’s also wiped down frequently during sessions and before they head home for the day.

And while the outdoor venue means the odd session may get washed away, the kids don’t lose out, as each is issued a punch card so a missed day can be made up as part of another camp.

Dowell said their summer of survival is actually allowing the program to thrive.

“True growth in the sport will only happen when you think outside the box,” he said.

Or in the case of Panther Hoops, outside the gym.

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.”

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.