Sunday, Day 4 of our tour, we headed off East on a sunny prairie morn to the town of Oakbank, population about 4600. There, our lives were forever changed for the better as we learned what ‘hospitality’ and ‘welcoming strangers’ is all about.

There at Oakbank United Church, Reverend Maureen McCartney, choir director Linda, and the congregation enthusiastically welcomed us and made us an integral part of the service. We sang a piece, then there would be a meditation on that theme, then we’d sing again… we sang throughout the whole service! I was so proud of our singers and how they just put their trust in what was happening, and went with the flow of me asking them to go hold hands in the congregation, or move here and there to sing. I’m convinced that they sang well because of their warm reception by the church attendees! Singers were each presented with a mini prayer shawl that had been hand crocheted!!!

After the service, we had a delicious lunch, complete with brownie/icecream/ fruits sundaes that the church volunteers had put together. Even the Sunday School children had made foot-long candy skewers, wrapped beautifully, for each singer!!! Talk about the royal welcome!

At lunch, singers spread out at the tables so that they could meet and chat with members of the community. By doing so, they got to share their experiences and learn a bit about the area. Reading their reflections, this visit to Oakband and feeling so warmly embraced, was a highlight for many of them.

After lunch we went a few minutes north to Kin Place Care Centre, where we sang and visited with the residents there. It was absolutely heart-warming to see the kids chatting and eating cookies with the residents there. And the kids loved being able to sing their “fun” rep- the standards- like Blue Skies, A Tisket A Tasket etc. They sang with gusto and pizazz, with faces lit up joyfully.

I must take a moment here to acknowledge our stellar accompanist, Barry Yamanouchi! He was a rock star especially today, when he was asked to play the church hymns at the service and later at the care home. He’s such a pro, he totally ripped it up and elevated all our spirits with his energized and stylistic playing. So fun.

We set off for “Ken’s Farm”. That’s not really the name of the farm, but what I’ll call it here. Ken plays french horn in the Winnipeg Symphony, and is a wonderful musican and chamber music artist. He and I met at summer music camp in grade 10, and were friends through youth orchestra and music school many years ago! He and his family have 14 acres of natural prairie where they are habilitating a couple of horses through positive behaviour training. With this training, the horses get a “clicker click” then a food treat whenever they do what they are supposed to do. There is no “breaking the horse”, no force, no hitting, no bit in the horse’s mouth… it’s all very calm and gentle, caring, kind, and nurturing. One of the horses is an endangered species of Ojibway pony that is proving to be a curious, intelligent and lovely animal. It was very inspiring to see how gentle guidance and kindness and tons of positive reinforcement can be so powerful. Ken played this same kind of “Yes game” with our choir. Same idea as the clicker training where the only word used is “yes!” when you see the behaviour (or working towards the desired behaviour). No scolding, no yelling, no hitting, no humiliation… it was totally inspiring to watch in action. A few of our singers could have spent all day sitting with the horses, communing and patting.

We went through a pleasant stomp along the prairie trail through part of Ken’s property. It was relaxing and very interesting to learn about it all. On the way along, Ken said in his calm, gentle manner, “Every night we do tick checks. You should be sure to check the kids for ticks.”

I’m quite sure my voice went instantly into hysteria mode: “TICKS?!?!? ARE YOU FREAKING KIDDING ME?!?!?!?!?” because here on the West Coast, ticks aren’t such a common thing, and we only hear the scary stories about Lyme disease.

Ken chuckled a bit and replied, “well, it IS Manitoba…”

By then, I was almost out of my mind with concern: would we be able to find all the ticks? Can we see them? Are they like lice? Are they digging in to us already? OMG!!!!!!! the panic going on in my brain!!!!!

Very quickly, many of my questions were answered thanks to Google and people in the know. Yes, we could easily find the ticks because they looked like spiders and were on our shirts… we easily picked them off. Before we got on the bus, we brushed and checked ourselves and each other, and we continued to check on the way back to our hotel. At the hotel, all farm clothes and any bags that had been outside went into the white bathtub so we could spot any critter that had hitched a ride. We insisted that kids shower thoroughly and check and recheck over the next 24 hours, before any ticks could start to “feed”. EEEEEEPPPPPPSSSS!!!

In speaking to other Manitobans about it, we realized that checking for ticks on pets and people every night is as common as brushing your teeth before bed. As one woman laughingly told us, “well it’s been dry, so there are a lot of ticks. If it was wetter, there would be a lot of mosquitos. It’s never perfect!”  ACK! Oh the things we learn by travelling!

We got all washed up and walked over to Shaw Field, (home of the Winnipeg Goldeyes Baseball Team) where there is a lovely Indian restaurant overlooking the baseball diamond, called Clay Oven. I got a kick out of hearing singers comment “oooh this is a fancy restaurant” when they walked into our seating area to see flowers on the tables and white linens!  Many singers had never had Indian food before, but bravely tried butter chicken, rice and naan, with pakoras and samosas for appetizers. The restaurant service was excellent, and they just kept bringing fresh dishes to us until we were all as full as… wait…I’m not going to use the expression “as full as a tick” here… !!!! It’s too soon.

After dinner, since it was such a warm spring/ summer night, we walked down to The Forks again. We passed lots of subdued Winnipeg Jets fans in their white jerseys, arms around each other, making their way to The Forks too. (We’d had high hopes for the Jets winning this round of playoffs, but sadly, no.)

THIS time at The Forks, there were lots of people eating, hanging out, people watching… the little aqua bus type boats were running on the river, and street entertainers/ buskers were all over the area. You could imagine the same kind of vibe hundreds of years ago: people from all over gathering at these river cross roads, trading, selling, learning and networking, and just enjoying the bustle of the place.

I used to play in a group that did street entertainment at Whistler in the late ‘80s and Expo ’86 (wow-way back when), so I have a soft spot for good street performers. Singers had gathered at our designated meeting spot, right on time, just as a guy with a ladder and flaming torches started his show. Our bedtime plans changed: we had to stay and watch… I mean, the guy was putting flaming torches in his mouth, balancing a ladder on his chin, and blowing clouds of flame like a dragon!

Back at the hotel, we thought singers would have time to pack their suitcases and tidy/ organize their rooms AND have time for a swim or shower. We were wrong. The packing and tidying was totally painful to watch, as singers got distracted or moved in slow motion… I guess even this far from home, no one loves cleaning their rooms, and no one finds packing “easy”!

This is a good time to rave about our outstanding chaperone/ choir manager team. I can’t imagine touring without them. Singers are so well cared for by these amazing people, yet, they give singers space to show leadership and responsibility. Chaperones think of everything and how to make it streamlined for singer success, at every turn. I totally love and appreciate this crew. They laugh and cry with me, and they make it all super fun and possible.

At the end of a transformative Day 4, we all fell into bed.

Except for Marnie, our chaperone who stayed awake for a few more hours reading and learning about ticks…