Low Down Articles

How I Got Here

Article 11 of 14     

This article first appeared in the "How I got here" column in the April 04, 2018 issue of the "The Low Down to Hull and Back News". Reprinted with permission. Search complete list of Low Down Articles.

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Expo 67 paves the way to a life in the forest

By Phil Jenkins

The year 1967 was a Canadian party, with party central at Expo 67 in Montreal. Among the millions who attended Expo, there was a 25-year-old Venezuelan woman, Elena Whyte. There as part of a delegation from Venezuela, and already able to speak English (her father had once been employed by the United Nations), Elena was drawn to this politically stable, dictator-free, egalitarian country that had four seasons.

Elena Whyte
Elena Whyte with friend during construction of her straw bale house, 1986. Photo courtesy Elena Whyte.

With her mind set on returning to Canada, Elena landed a scholarship to study here. She chose Carleton University and flew north with her children on Jan. 15, 1968 to start a new life. At Dorval airport, even as she wondered if the cold would kill her, she saw out of the windows a completely white world and admired the determination and competence of these northerners as they coped with snow. Her husband joined her and found a job at the Venezuelan Embassy in Ottawa.

So the next phase of her much-travelled life - which has included several childhood bouts of exile in various Latin American countries due to her father's unionist endeavours - was spent in the leafy lanes of New Edinburgh, studying sociology at Carleton, and raising a family. Then there was another move, from husband one to husband two. A professor at Carleton, he had built a log cabin in the beautiful Meech Creek valley (may it never change). "I remember going into the woods with a copy of 'The Hobbit' he had given me, and reading it beside a babbling brook. I felt at peace in the northern forest. I was a newly blessed citizen of this wide-open country. I was home."

Not quite. When the properties owned by Meech Creek Valley residents were expropriated to make way for a zoo that never came to life (phew), the cabin was de- and then re-constructed in Fairville, near Low, making for an abrasive commute. A little while later, the marriage went south, and Elena, with no desire to leave the forest for the city, requested, in lieu of money, a piece of land in what the locals call Tulip Valley. Once a part of the Cross sawmills, it had a river view and a fine set of trees. She built a small shed on the lot with bunk beds, hung a telephone box in a tree so she could continue her work as a travel agent, and set out over the course of the summer, using her construction training, to build a passive solar house. "The first night we slept there, I heard a clomp, clomp outside," she said. Stepping out into the moonlight, she saw a moose go serenely by. The moose visit was taken as a sort of welcome wagon from Mother Nature.

With the assistance of the well-known builder and advocate Louis Gagné, Elena went on to build, in 1987, another house on the lot - a straw bale gatehouse which is still occupied 30 years later. Now in her 70s, Elena is a long-standing Wakefield Grannie and recently made a move into the village. The forest is only a few feet away.