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THE BALANCED LIFE | Air travel with limited restrictions is fun again

D on’t you love it when something works out better than expected? Last month was the first time that my wife and I have flown since before Covid, and we were still apprehensive about what to expect.
Trestle # 18 along the Kettle Valley Railway, above Kelowna, British Columbia. JOHN SWART

Don’t you love it when something works out better than expected? Last month was the first time that my wife and I have flown since before Covid, and we were still apprehensive about what to expect. It was the first day of reduced Covid restrictions, meaning staff should be more available, proof-of-vaccination for domestic travel was no longer required—theoretically shortening wait times—and travel volumes were returning to normal.

In contrast to all the national media coverage about cancelled flights, long delays, and nonexistent customer assistance at Pearson in Toronto, our recent flight from Hamilton to Kelowna, B.C. worked out just fine.

A chill attitude definitely helped, as did keeping personal expectations reasonable. Perfection never was in the air travel dictionary, and stuff happens regardless of the carrier. An unexpected delay, lost luggage, or last-minute glitch may happen to anyone at any time. Catching a 6 AM flight is still bloody early and that will never change.

We’re huge fans of Hamilton’s John C. Munro airport. Although carriers and destinations are limited, we use it whenever we can. It’s less than an hour from Pelham and there is no traffic to fight when driving through the backcountry of West Lincoln, Glanbrook, and Binbrook. A three-minute walk from the parking lot gets you to the terminal, parking is less than $20 per day, the atmosphere is definitely low-key, and it’s always an adventure walking from the terminal to your plane across the concrete staging area.

Our flight was booked well in advance, yet our carrier re-booked us to less desirable departure times six weeks prior to our flight. Not great, but a full refund or credit was offered. We have traditional alarm clocks plus those on our phones and watches in case the power here in Pelham happened to go off, so we agreed to the changes.

Apparently our chosen carrier uses the same pre-flight communications for all Canadian departures, regardless of airport. WestJet recommended getting to the airport two and a half hours before departure for domestic flights. This may make sense in busy Toronto or Vancouver, but at John C. Munro, that gets you to the airport half an hour before the ticket counter, baggage drop off, security screening and Tim Hortons open for the day.

Boarding pass procedures haven’t changed, airport and airline staff are still friendly and try their best. Check in and security went as normal for us.

Those we encountered using discount carriers were often less lucky. The longest line-ups in Calgary—not Toronto but still a busy international airport—were definitely at the customer service counters of discount airlines, and they moved frighteningly slowly. Swoop, owned by WestJet, was one such carrier cancelling flights, which was a bit unnerving. Our apprehension was unfounded. Our flights departed a few minutes late each time, but not enough to be a problem, at least for most passengers.

If you’ve missed how enlightening and stimulating travel within Canada can be, now may be the time to get back at it

When the frustrated captain of our flight from Calgary announced a delay of unknown length because the ground crew had to find a cat which was booked aboard the flight and had gone missing in the airport, a fellow in the seats behind us was quite upset.

He was connecting from a Vancouver flight which had been delayed and worried he might miss our plane. When he had asked an attendant on his previous flight (same airline) to let the crew of our flight know that he might be running a couple minutes late, he was told, “Sorry, we can’t wait for anyone.” With a voice loud enough that half the plane could hear, he asked why we were now waiting for a multiple-expletives-deleted cat when they wouldn’t wait for him?

That component of flying never changes. The person in the seat next to you always has a story to share if you take the time to ask.

Our seat companion was Arusa, a young woman travelling on vacation from Yellowknife to Hamilton to meet family. She had grown up in London, Ontario, attended Brock University, actually knew where Pelham was on a map, and was now living her dreams one at a time. After a few years doing relief work with the Red Cross, dreams of Canada’s north took her to Yellowknife, where she does environmental assessments throughout the Yukon and Northwest Territories for the Canadian government. A short contract job became 12 years, and she had just been accepted to be part of Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans Marine Spatial Planning unit.

Marine Spatial Planning is an internationally recognized process for coordinating ocean activities around the world in collaboration with international, provincial, territorial, and Indigenous governments. Canada is significantly behind the curve in this field, so fulfilling her next dream will be exciting work.

Our conversation gradually found its way to bugs, polar bears, grizzlies, and bicycle touring. Seems Arusa has lots of cycling friends in Yellowknife, knows the guy that owns the only bike shop in town, and is sure she can find someone with a rifle to guide me from Yellowknife to Inuvik if I’d like to attempt the ride. It’s 3101 kilometres of nothing, and as spectacular as that desolation might be, I knew there’d be no reason to ask if the gun was for polar bears or mosquitoes.

Based on our short experience in the Okanagan region, the vibrancy of B.C. (short for “bring cash”) was surprising, and proved one needn’t leave Canada to experience a different culture. Well-off retirees from Vancouver, Calgary, and Toronto are still flocking to the Okanagan for sun, outdoor lifestyles, and increasingly culture. The last thing we expected was that the Kelowna Art Gallery would have a show featuring the evolution of Pop Art, including 120 pieces by Andy Warhol, Mr. Brainwash, Banksy, and three other well-known artists. The show was absolutely incredible, and I finally understand the appeal Banksy holds for those who sometimes wish they could give a one-finger salute to the pompous.

This migration is fueling a housing and services boom which is employing young people in IT, trades, and the service industry, providing an apparent equilibrium within the region. There’s no doubt conspicuous consumption is on display everywhere, but for each Porsche or 5000-square-foot lakefront home there’s a 4x4 pickup with a small-business logo on its door rolling along on custom wheels and tires worth $10,000.

The Okanagan waterfront offers every possible opportunity for recreation and fitness. Cycling and hiking trails like the Kettle Valley Rail Trail, with its famous trestles, dissect nearby mountains, and the Okanagan Rail Trail hugs the shores of Kalamalka and Wood Lakes. There’s well-developed bicycle infrastructure, public bike sharing on a scale that’s amazing for such a relatively small population, and bike lanes to everywhere which are in constant use.

Kelowna is a bustling city. Consequently vehicle traffic is heavy, yet within its urban boundaries century-old cottages and estates, multiple new housing developments, mountain parks, ranches, productive orchards and vineyards all co-exist, providing a diverse and exciting model of what rapid development can look like when it is embraced and managed.

If you’ve missed how enlightening and stimulating travel within Canada can be, now may be the time to get back at it. Our experience with flying was more than acceptable. We were reminded that our country is diverse and exciting, and as always, most Canadians are friendly and accommodating.