Paula's numerous freelance articles have appeared in Cottage Life magazine, Sideroads, Beyond the City, Muskoka Magazine and the Muskokan. She has written about Muskoka writers, artists and artisans, 'green' business owners, and many others.

Some examples:

"Music in the Blood, Passion in the Heart", Beyond the City, Winter 2008/2009
"It Begins With a Single Step", Sideroads, Autumn 2007
"Weaving Beauty", Beyond the City, November/December 2006
"The Quest for Vision", Beyond the City, September 2006
"Write About her Life", Muskoka Magazine, Winter 2005/2006
"Fueling Differently", Muskoka Magazine, October/November 2004

"Music in the Blood, Passion in the Heart", Beyond the City, Winter 2008/2009

I
t takes Ruth Wagner about 200 hours to make a violin, and she loves every minute of it.

After several decades at her craft, Wagner still wakes up at 3 a.m. on occasion and tiptoes down to her workshop to check on things. "I can't leave it alone," she says. "I start by wondering if something is dry, and before I know it I've stayed down there until it's light."

Wagner's passion for her work is reflected in the quality of the instruments she makes. Her hand-crafted violins are in such demand, both in Canada and abroad, that there is a two-and-a-half-year waiting list for them.

As well, professional musicians send Wagner damaged instruments for repair and bows for re-hairing. In the case of particularly valuable instruments, it's not unusual for guards to show up at Wagner's home in the tiny village of Beatrice (just north of Bracebridge) to deliver them. And when Wagner returns pieces like those, she does so in person. "I flew to Paris a couple of weeks ago with a violin," she says. "You don't just send those by courier."

To satisfy insurance companies that the instruments entrusted to her are safe, Wagner's quaint house is protected by several dogs and an extensive alarm system.

Music is in the violin-maker's blood: her grandfather, who was a member of England's House of Lords, had a PhD in music. After a horseback adventure in the colonies, he married a Metis woman from Manitoba who was a concert pianist with the Winnipeg symphony. "At night my grandfather would play the clarinet and my grandmother the piano," Wagner says.

Wagner's father passed down his family's appreciation for classical music, as well as traditional Metis jigs, stories and skills – although he didn't talk about having native blood. "He would have lost his teaching job if he'd admitted being part-Indian," she says.

A long-time member of the Moon River First Nation, Wagner remembers going to her first Metis gatherings and being surprised at how familiar everything was. "My father told me those stories and whistled those tunes, but he never mentioned that they were Metis," she says. "Sometimes I wonder how he would feel about me being so public about being Metis. I think he'd say it would be nice if people were proud of their heritage."

Wagner's love affair with the violin began early in childhood during her first trip to the symphony. "When it was over, my father said, ‘Let's go,'" she recalls. "I just sat there hoping the musicians would come back out and play some more."

Because her parents were only prepared to pay for piano lessons, Wagner eagerly awaited Grade 5, when she would have access to violin instruction in school. But when that day finally came, she learned there was no available instrument for her. "It was the most horrifying thing that had happened in my life," she says. "I didn't have a handkerchief, and I had to blow my nose on my slip because I couldn't stop crying."

When Wagner's grandmother heard what had happened, she sent Wagner a violin that had been tucked away in her attic. The little girl emptied her piggy bank and went in search of someone to fix it up.

At the first two shops she tried, she was told she would have to leave the instrument behind and come back for it later. "I couldn't do that because I needed it Monday morning," she says. Seeing her distress, the man in the third shop put his other tasks on hold and did the work right away.

"He told me my bow was only good for staking tomatoes with," she says with a chuckle. "Then he picked out a new one and showed me how to take care of it." As she left, the man told her to keep in touch, adding, "I think you'll make a good violin player."

Although Wagner followed her parents' wishes and studied piano to the highest level possible, the violin remained her first love. She won violin scholarships, achieved the top level in violin performance, and played the instrument in several symphonies in Toronto.

All that time, the man from the shop came to her concerts. Then the violin-maker moved away, returning to Toronto once a week to pick up repairs at another music store.

Wagner married, had four children and moved to a farm outside Bracebridge. One day while shopping in town she was surprised to meet the violin-maker, who now lived in Beatrice.

Later, Wagner returned to the city to care for her mother, who had Alzheimer's. When she saw a brochure advertising an honours program in instrument-making from the Ontario College of Art, Wagner told her teenage children that if she could live her life over, she would take that course. "But I knew it wasn't possible because my mother couldn't be left alone," she says. Her children stayed with their grandparents in the evenings so she could complete the degree through six years of night school.

Much later she returned to Muskoka to live with and then marry the violin-maker, whose name was Sieg Wagner.

"I admired him so much as a person for years. Then I fell in love with him," she says. "He was an amazing man. I was blessed to have him in my life."

Sieg, who had started his business in 1934 in Antwerp, Brussels, taught Wagner a new and different way to make violins, as well as how to repair and restore old instruments and re-hair bows. They worked together in the studio he had built.

After Sieg died in 1999, Wagner was terribly lonely. She found that writing to him before bed every night helped a little. One night about a year after his death, she wrote, "I want to embrace life fully while I can…. I feel the overwhelming hurry to make the most of life."

The next day an acquaintance named Rod Millington asked her out on a date. Wagner was about to say no, but then she remembered what she had written to Sieg and instead agreed. Eventually Millington, who Wagner describes as very non-invasive and comfortable to be around, asked her to marry him and she said yes. Someone once asked Millington how it felt to be living in Sieg Wagner's house with Sieg Wagner's wife, and Millington answered, "The three of us get along just fine."

When Wagner isn't busy in her workshop, she can often be found reaching out to her neighbours and broader community through music. She plays at each of the Bracebridge-area retirement homes one time per month and teaches music to some local kids, sending them away with homemade cookies.

As well, Wagner doesn't limit her services to professional musicians. She's happy to do repairs for local people as well. "I never know what will come my way," she says, giving the example of a filthy, battered violin that had originally been acquired in exchange for a fig tree. When Wagner cleaned it up, the instrument turned out to be worth about $53,000.

"Every day is a surprise," she says. "Every day is lots of fun. It's never the same old thing, which makes coming into my workshop a real joy."


"It Begins With a Single Step", Sideroads, Autumn 2007

A
labyrinth is like a breath, says Beata Barnard. You come in and go out, and you do it your own way. And, like breathing mindfully, walking a labyrinth can result in deep peace and insight.

For thousands of years, labyrinths have been recognized by different cultures as powerful, transformative patterns. They are different from mazes, which are meant to cause confusion with their dead ends and tricks.

"As you enter a labyrinth, you just follow the path, and the path will take you there. It will take people right into the centre," explains the Burk's Falls-area Sivananda yoga teacher. "A labyrinth brings peace."

She should know: she has one in her backyard.

Barnard decided to create a labyrinth in 2004 as a tribute to her teacher, Swami Vishnu-devananda, and an extension of his mission to bring peace into the world.

"He always said peace begins within; it starts with a single person," Barnard says of the man who spent time in global hotspots such as the Suez Canal and Berlin.

Inspired by the popular Christian story Footprints in the Sand, Barnard knew just where to begin. "I love this story, so I thought, if I build a labyrinth, it will be out of sand so people will see the footprints," she says.

Her design was also influenced by her own first experience in a labyrinth in North Bay.

"I loved so much to be at the centre. I did not want to leave, because I knew that when I walked out, something was going to end, that beautiful feeling that it created," she explains. With that in mind, she decided to put a four-sided bench inside so people would feel welcome to spend time there.

The planning done, Barnard and her husband Glenn began the physical labour to make the Peace Labyrinth a reality. They prepared a 65 by 67-foot patch of earth, and in the spring of 2005 six truckloads of sand were brought in.

High on a pole at the very centre of the labyrinth, they mounted a copper and stained glass sculpture representing the earth, with a solar lantern inside to make it glow at night. Then the couple carefully measured the circles for the eight circuits of the labyrinth, marking them with large stones and another 108 lanterns. The spaces between the markers, Barnard says, will ultimately be filled with stones placed there by those who have spent time in the labyrinth.

Barnard notes that people choose to walk a labyrinth for many reasons: to pray, think, heal, or to invite openness and clarity about themselves, their circumstances and relationships.

The most important thing, she says, is the decision to step out of everyday life and onto the path.

And what do people do once they get there? "Anything," Barnard replies with a smile. They may walk slow or fast, be silent or sing, cry or laugh: it all depends on what needs to be released for peace to come.

In the past two years, Barnard has seen many different reactions from labyrinth walkers. One woman, she says, was sceptical and didn't expect to be affected by spending time in the Peace Labyrinth. However, while she was walking, it hit her that all the other people in the labyrinth were following the same path. Talking about it afterward, she was surprised at how spiritual the experience had been.

Another woman, Barnard says, gained insight into herself when she felt overwhelmed inside the labyrinth. "She started to step over the paths and all of a sudden she stopped and she said, 'I'm lost! I'm lost! I don't know where I'm going anymore! What am I going to do?' and she was desperate," Barnard recounts. "And I looked at her and I smiled and I said, 'Just keep going.'"

When the woman exited the labyrinth, she said with quiet wonder, "This is my life. I constantly get lost somewhere, not sure where I am going."

While people's experiences vary, Barnard says she doesn't believe it is possible to be unaffected by walking a labyrinth.

"People may not be aware of what they have received and act upon it immediately. For some it will come later," she says "But I believe that people will be inspired in a very, very unique and own way as they walk."

Individuals and groups are welcome to experience the Peace Labyrinth. For information, please call Beata Barnard at 387-1879 or go to www.yogamindandbody.ca.


"Weaving Beauty" Beyond the City, November/December 2006

W
hen we see beauty, it makes us take a deep breath and connect with who we are, according to Marni Martin.

"My job is to open the moment up and make an opportunity for someone to have that experience," says the fibre artist.

"If we're busy rushing around every day, we don't give ourselves a chance to have feelings of awe and connection," she points out. "We're just not open to them."

In her Huntsville studio, Martin creates handwoven tapestries in rich, hand-dyed colours. Much of her work embodies the lines and rhythms of the natural world, whether in the form of a woven birch limb stretching over a red winter landscape, rolling hills, vivid flowers, or the northern lights.

"I have a very distinct way of weaving," Martin says. "It's not flat like a painting. The surface actually undulates. And to me that's very important because I'm not trying to create a fabric painting."

The rich history of her craft is never far from Martin's mind. "What I'm doing is so rooted in what it is to be human and centuries of weaving," she says. "The technique is nothing new; that's the amazing thing. It's the same thing women did thousands of years ago, at the same pace. I'm just bringing to it contemporary thoughts and ideas."

When visitors see Martin working on a tapestry, they often comment on the patience she must have.

"I don't think of it in those terms, though," Martin says. "For me, there are just so many things happening. You are deliberately weaving in every thread; there's a lot of intention in it. And you have to see the small picture while at the same time keeping everything in perspective in terms of the larger overall tapestry."

She explains that during the weaving process she can only see about four inches of the tapestry at a time, and it's impossible to go back and touch it up when it's done. That's why it's necessary to be completely present during every moment.

The visitors' comments remind her of a quote from master tapestry weaver Archie Brennan: "The problem is not that tapestry is too slow but the rest of 20th century life is too fast."

From the moment Martin was introduced to the world of textiles while studying at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, everything about it appealed to her. "I knew that's where I would find a home for my ideas," she says. "That's how I could express the things I needed to express."

Martin's inspiration often comes from her natural surroundings. Rather than trying to replicate exactly what she sees, she focuses on evoking whatever feeling was stirred within her.

For example, looking out the window above her kitchen sink every evening last winter, she was mesmerized by the quality of the light she saw. "It's a transitioning time," she said. "And the night sky is just such beautiful colours. It's not a matter of mixing, it's a layering of colours because they each keep their integrity and yet they're overlapping one another." She created a tapestry in response to this experience which she called 'Dusk.'

Usually Martin does a painting before weaving and creates a grid on it to help guide her as she works, but last summer she initiated a tapestry without knowing what it would become. "One weft led to another and that's what revealed itself," she said, pointing to an image of a windswept pine tree with roots firmly grasping a large stone outcropping.

"Once I began to put the rock in, I could almost see the roots of the tree stabilizing over it," she says. "I thought, 'That's what I'm trying to do, put my roots down. I'm trying to not be overwhelmed by everyone else who's feeling overwhelmed.' Once I could find that intention and get the clarity, I was fine."

With commissioned pieces, the process is very different. "I find that experience so exciting, exhilarating and terrifying," Martin says. "It's a privilege. Each piece is really a reflection of the people and what they've given me to work with." While a work is in progress, the clients and their space are never far from her thoughts.

Martin also produces a line of exquisite handwoven scarves. "I love the fact that people wear them so close to their bodies and there's such a connection," she says. "I get e-mails from strangers. A woman last year e-mailed the first day she wore her scarf to tell me how wonderful it was. And I thought, 'Wow, I'm not wandering alone in the wilderness here. There is a purpose.'"

And so Martin continues to weave in her studio, surrounded by the beauty of Muskoka. "I feel at home here," she says. "I feel relaxed. I look outside and see so many beautiful things. It feeds me every day, and I need to be sustained in that way."


"The Quest for Vision" Beyond the City, September 2006

W
hen was the last time you were truly still?

That's what a vision quest offers: the chance to leave behind the pace of your daily life and be silent in the vastness of the natural world.

For thousands of years young native people have gone to the wilderness to discover their life's purpose. But now anyone at a crossroads, regardless of age or cultural background, can undertake a quest, and one place they can do so is in Huntsville.

Edwina Crawford-Boyle is a trained 'protector' who arranges two quests per year, one in early May and one in early September. "I'd love to do more, but a quest shouldn't be about battling the bugs," she says.

The Huntsville music store owner took part in her own first vision quest just three years ago. While in New Jersey on a wilderness survival course from Tom Brown Jr., she heard that his student Malcolm Ringwalt was organizing a 100-person quest.

"I didn't even know what [a quest] was," she says, "but I knew I had to be there."

Tom Brown Jr. studied for 10 years with a Lipan Apache elder named Stalking Wolf and then spent another decade applying his knowledge in the wild before opening a school during the 1970s. As the demands on his time grew, Brown entrusted Ringwalt with the philosophical branch of Stalking Wolf's teachings, which included the ancient art of the vision quest.

Crawford-Boyle was so strongly affected by her experience during the 100-person quest that she decided to sign on for the intensive training required to become a protector, the person responsible for all the logistics leading up to a quest and then ensuring that participants are safe and undisturbed while it is taking place.

So what exactly does a vision quest entail? In Ringwalt's words, it's "four days and four nights immersed in the beauty and healing energy of nature, alone in a quest circle, no distractions, fasting from all things familiar." The brochure from his Earth-Heart Institute of Vision and Healing continues, "With all distractions and voices of those around you silenced, you are more able to hear the whisperings of your soul."

In Huntsville, the entire experience lasts from a Sunday afternoon to the next Sunday morning. The first day is devoted to preparation. With guidance from the protectors, questers choose a location on a 95-acre piece of property and create their quest circle, a space 10 feet in diameter where they will remain throughout the quest. They are served food designed to ready their bodies for their upcoming fast, and they learn about the kinds of difficulties they might face while they're out there.

Next comes the four-day quest, a time for participants to sit with nature and themselves, accompanied by just drinking water, a tarp and extra clothing. During this time protectors discreetly monitor questers. "We walk a protection trail daily and check in on you, although you never see us," explains Crawford-Boyle.

Upon returning to the 'base camp,' participants are encouraged to journal in detail about what happened while they were questing. They then learn about how to work with and interpret their experiences.

This does not mean that protectors provide any direct interpretation, stresses Crawford-Boyle. In fact, she notes that according to Tom Brown Jr., if anyone tells you what your vision means, you should run away as fast as you can. Only you can truly know what transpired during your quest and the implications of that experience.

"We are 100 per cent committed to not offering you any guidance," she says with a smile. "We prepare people, put them in their circle, and get out of the way. We have nothing to do with what happens between you and the Creator while you're out there. Our job is your safety."

Crawford-Boyle says a person's initial quest provides clarity about their own path and what they need to do to make straight that path. "Ultimately it becomes about a purpose beyond yourself, the more you quest," she adds.

And what happens after questers return home? Protectors recommend that participants refrain from making any large changes in their lives in first six months following a quest. It's better in the long run, says Crawford-Boyle, to sit with new insights for a while. "You need to be gentle with the people around you," she explains. "See how your vision fits and make changes as gently as possible."

Tom Brown calls a vision quest "a challenging and powerful opportunity for growth, regardless of your background, station in life or belief system." He says, "It is free of any dogma or religious affiliation. The only requirement is a commitment to yourself, your spiritual growth, and a willingness to be transformed."

If you feel the drawn to the quest, you can reach Edwina Crawford-Boyle at elementquest@vianet.ca


"Write About her Life," Muskoka Magazine, Winter 2005/2006

F
ans of Alayna Munce's writing have been waiting quite a while for her first book. When I Was Young and in My Prime does not disappoint.

The Huntsville-born writer has seen much success in the last decade. Her poetry has appeared in numerous literary magazines and an anthology of new Canadian poets; she is the three-time winner of Grain magazine's 'Short Grain' contest; and she was runner-up in the 2004 CBC Literary Awards. However, the eight-year road from inspiration to publication of her first novel was neither straight nor smooth, and Munce says she is glad: she needed the time to figure out what her work was about and to "grow up a little bit."

"I think it's just really important to have your sense of what's important grounded in simpler, humbler things," says the 32-year-old.

She recalls driving home after completing her final draft of the novel at a friend's cabin and hearing a song with the chorus: "We're coming upon a time in our lives when the little dream lives but the big dream dies. Not for nothing."

"I remember just weeping in the car," Munce says. "It really felt that way, like okay, this is not the masterpiece that when I was young I imagined my first book would be, the Great Canadian Novel. It's just this book, this modest, imperfect, flawed offering, but I can live with it. Maybe it has some good moments and has something to offer."

In fact, When I Was Young, released in October by Nightwood Editions, has much to offer. This book, described as "deeply humane, deeply human" by author Michael Crummey, follows a young woman's experience of her grandparents' decline and her own struggles with marriage and meaning-making. It is a collage of stories, diary entries, poems, conversations, lists, snapshots, songs and even expense lists. The result is a moving, many-layered elegy.

Jim Bartley of the Globe and Mail called the novel "heartfelt, funny, [and] full of hard truths," and commented, "What's most striking about it all is the lightness of touch -- and the gravity infusing it nonetheless."

That lightness of touch was hard-won. Munce wrote, wrestled with and revised the manuscript numerous times before it settled into its final form.

The story first emerged when she was in her early 20s living in Toronto. When her grandmother's Alzheimer's disease prompted a move to a nursing home and her grandfather began to decline physically, Munce's reactions naturally made their way into her writing.

"I write about things that affect me deeply," she explains, "those in some ways mundane but very universal things: intimacy, family, relationships, responsibilities to each other, how we live those out, how we fail each other... Those are the things that fascinate and interest me." Grappling with her grandparents' situation, Munce thought long and hard about what were to become the central questions of her book: what's left of us when we die, what's buried with us and what survives us. Her imagination was also stirred when she stumbled across a stack of her grandmother's five-year diaries.

"I was struck by how little they convey but how much they convey and what's between the lines," she says.

While I Was Young is a novel, not a memoir, but "it is absolutely based on my own experience," says Munce. "It's also absolutely modified and changed and I've taken incredible liberties for the sake of the work, but there's no question it's from my life."

At first she felt conflicted about using her grandparents as writing 'material,' but she has now come to terms with it.

"It's how I see, how I relate," she says. "I think if you can accept that and try and bring an element of grace to it, it can take you deeper into relationships, and I think that's what it did with my grandparents. It made me fascinated by who they were."

She continues, "I'm grateful for how close I was to my grandfather, and I don't know if I would have been that close if I hadn't been fascinated by the more universal phenomenon that was going on at the same time."

When Munce was invited to participate in a reading series in Toronto, she chose to share some poems about her grandparents. The host commented, "Oh, you seem to have a theme going here. Maybe it's a book," and Munce's startled reaction was, "A book!? Whoa!"

Soon afterward she began the long process of shaping individual segments into a cohesive manuscript, first on her own and then with mentors at the Sagehill Writing Experience in Saskatchewan and the Banff Centre for the Arts.

Her Banff mentor, Don MacKay of Brick Books (one of the most reputable poetry presses in Canada) invited Munce to submit her work for consideration.

"They publish six books a year and they're always inundated with good quality manuscripts," she says. "I made the final cut three years in a row, but people kept saying to me, 'This has so much in it, but there's something missing.'"

Editors at other presses said the same thing. "Everybody had a different take on what was missing, but there was this consensus that something was missing," she recalls.

"After the third year I just kind of gave up," says Munce. "I thought, 'They're right. There's something missing and I don't know what it is.' I just put it aside and turned to other things. I thought, 'There are lots of writers out there who have first books that never do anything. That's just part of the apprenticeship.'"

Munce began working on another novel and a poetry collection, but the death of her beloved father Greg in 2002 changed her trajectory.

Soon afterward, Munce found herself newly single and living in her father's home. "I was a mess," she says. "I was trying to write and trying to have some kind of discipline in the middle of it all, but I was not in a good space." She kept thinking about her father and writing about her father until finally she decided to stop fighting it and focus on him completely for a while. One thing she kept coming back to was a road trip she and her brother Jeremy took just after their father died.

"It was such an intense time," Munce says.

When the deadline for the 2004 CBC Literary Awards approached, she decided to use the road trip as a framework for a travel piece.

"It was good for me to do it and send it off," Munce says. "It was just part of me trying to be in my writing life."

Her second-place finish meant publication in Air Canada's En Route magazine and the broadcast of her story on CBC Radio.

"I had no concept that it would win, and I hadn't really thought it through," she says. "It was this incredibly personal piece and it was really fresh. I remember getting the call and it was kind of traumatic, to be honest."

Thinking about how thrilled her father would have been helped. In the end, Munce was glad for the wide, diverse audience her writing received.

"I loved the idea of this captive audience on a plane, bored out of their minds," she says. "It was really exciting to me thinking about all these people flying to Singapore or something reading it."

Then, just over a year ago, some of Munce's poems were selected for inclusion in Breathing Fire 2, an anthology of new Canadian poets. Ultimately, it was Silas White, the publisher of that anthology, who decided the world needed to hear more from Alayna Munce.

When she met him at the book launch, White asked her if she had a manuscript she could show him. Her reply was that she was working on a novel and a poetry collection, but she had an old manuscript he could see if he wanted.

After some hesitation, Munce sent the manuscript along with a letter saying, "I know you're going to say there's something missing. I don't know what it is and no one else has been able to really put their finger on it, but here it is. Feel free to take a look."

White agreed the manuscript was missing something but said he believed in Munce as a writer and he was willing to commit to it if she did another draft.

"I have to say I so respect Silas for taking a risk and committing to it without knowing what I would do," says Munce. "It was a really different beast once I did the new draft. It was a real opportunity."

She began her new draft at the end of January, 2005. The revision, Munce says, was truly a matter of re-envisioning the manuscript.

"There's a lot of new material," she says. "It's probably one-third to one-half new material, and what I discovered was that for me the missing piece was a stronger voice for the protagonist, the granddaughter character, and having her take you through the story and having her life in the city be the counterpoint to the rural and older ways."

When asked about the 'novel' designation, Munce says, "At the beginning, I thought of it as a collection of poetry -- maybe an odd collection of poetry, but there've been precedents in the history of Canadian poetry."

Throughout the writing one thing she allowed herself to do was not to worry about what it was, but to focus on how she wanted to write and how she wanted to evoke certain things.

"I'm grateful that I had people around me who were encouraging that and that I just had the confidence -- or folly -- to just do that," she says.

The book's narrative became stronger and stronger until White finally said, "I think it's a novel and I think that we should categorize it as a novel because it's readable and it'll get a wider readership if it's called a novel. Those are the practicalities of it."

And the title? When I Was Young and in my Prime is "very recent," according to Munce.

"For a long time the title was Natural Disasters," she says. "From the inside of the book the title worked, when you knew that it was about aging as a natural disaster, but it was just too heavy-handed. You can't call a book Natural Disasters." She laughs.

Her next step was to start "playing around with all kinds of things, much more slight, lyrical things," says Munce. "For a while I called it A Small Rain of Copper, and then I was going to call it Good Grief, but I found out it was taken."

In the end she went through the book looking for lines that caught her attention. "When I was young and in my prime" appears twice, both in the grandfather's voice.

"What I like about it is that it points in two directions," Munce says. "It's the story of her youth and her prime and her thinking about questions of aging while she's in her prime, but it also refers to the grandparents, and I like that it has this sort of sense of elegy but it's light."

Munce is delighted and humbled by the reaction to her book thus far.

One writer friend told her that reading it made him think about old age in a way he never had before.

"When he said that to me, I felt like okay, it's all worth it," she says. "If it makes one person think of something in a new way and makes them aware in a new way in the world, and be with people in a new way, then my work's done. I feel good and grateful for that."


"Fueling Differently," Muskoka Magazine, October/November 2004

W
hen it comes to developing fuel alternatives, "people like talking about it, but they don't want to get their hands dirty," observes Bruce Hodder of Burk's Falls.

Hodder, 23, and his brother Allan, 18, are notable exceptions to that rule. Over the past 14 months, the two soft-spoken innovators have translated a casual interest in alternative fuels into an operation producing enough biodiesel to run the vehicles of their extended family and friends. Not only that, but four townships have expressed an interest in using the fuel in municipal vehicles.

Biodiesel is a fuel made from vegetable oil or animal fat that can run in regular diesel engines. It is as biodegradable as sugar, less toxic than salt, and can be used alone or mixed with petroleum diesel fuel. Some have compared its inoffensive odor to that of French fries.

As Allan points out, when Rudolph Diesel showed off his newly invented engine at the World Exhibition in Paris in 1900, it was running on 100 per cent peanut oil. However, the polluting petroleum fuel we now know as 'diesel' was much cheaper and in seemingly endless supply, so it became widely used.

Biodiesel has many advantages over petroleum diesel, the most important being that it is easy on the environment and on engines. The byproduct of the fuel creation process is glycerine, which has more than 1,000 documented uses, and toxic emissions like carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, carcinogenic hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide are reduced by up to 100 per cent when biodiesel is used.

Biodiesel is also a superior cleaner and lubricant. According to research by Barry Hertz of the University of Saskatchewan, use of biodiesel results in a tenfold reduction in engine wear. Because of this, it can be used to replace sulfur, a lubricating agent that, when burned, produces sulfur dioxide, the primary component of acid rain. Instead of sulfur, all diesel fuel sold in France contains 5% biodiesel.

There are thousands of biodiesel filling stations in Europe, several hundred in the United States, and just one in Canada: Topia Energy Inc. in Unionville, Ontario, which began offering a 20 per cent biodiesel mix last March. "We're light years behind," says Allan.

The fuel isn't perfect. Its main difficulty is that biodiesel 'gels' at low temperatures, so during the winter it can only be used in low concentrations, mixed with petroleum diesel. In spite of this, there are companies making biodiesel in southern Ontario and Ottawa, and public transportation systems in places like Toronto, Brampton and Sudbury are using it in varying concentrations with excellent results.

"It is hitting townships and municipal fleets, but isn't available to the average consumer," says Allan.

He continues: "This is considered an alternative fuel, but I don't think it's an alternative unless someone has the ability to run it. If I can make it available to the public, then I will consider it an alternative fuel."

Those who have used the Hodders' biodiesel in their vehicles will tell you it is a superior alternative, improving the performance of their engines. "We've got tons of success stories," says Allan.

The first guinea pig for the brothers' fuel was Bruce's 1981 Volkswagon diesel truck.

"It was getting 38 to 40 miles to the gallon. It had very poor power and was laying black smoke constantly," recalls Allan.

When the truck stopped on the highway during its maiden biodiesel voyage, the Hodders wondered what they had done wrong. However, they soon learned that when biodiesel is used in vehicles that have previously been running petroleum diesel, fuel filters often become clogged. This is not a problem with the biodiesel, but rather with the petroleum fuel, which causes sediment to build up in fuel tanks. "When you start running biodiesel, it'll clean all that stuff out. It takes all the junk in the fuel tank and fuel lines and stops up the fuel filter," explains Allan.

Several fuel filter changes and about 6,000 km later, the performance of Bruce's truck has improved significantly. "Now he's getting 60 miles to the gallon. It's running smoother, has more power, and there's no smoke any more," says Allan.

Success stories are not just limited to old vehicles, either. Biodiesel apparently fixed a friend's problems with the turbo-charger in his 96 Passat tdi (turbo diesel injection). He had been running a biodiesel mixture for a while, emptying a can into his fuel tank before each top-up with petroleum diesel. "One day there was a lineup, and he put the biodiesel in before getting to the front of the line," recounts Allan. "He had it idling for about 10 minutes on almost pure biodiesel before filling it up. When he pulled onto the road after that, the turbo charger kicked in. He hasn't had a problem since."

Neighbor Peter Edwards, a recent convert, says: "I purchased a VW diesel this spring as a reaction to rising gasoline prices and as a way to participate in the Hodder biodiesel project. I have been slowly increasing the percentage of bio in my tank as my confidence in the fuel grows…. The car's performance has improved, the exhaust smells way better, and it feels better knowing that I am contributing much less pollution to our stressed environment."

How did the brothers come to be manufacturers and suppliers of this little-known fuel? The entire family had always had an interest in alternative energy sources. Bruce originally experimented with ethanol fuel, but deer ate his artichoke crops, and engine modifications would have been required to run it. Then Allan came across information on the internet about biodiesel and they decided to pursue that avenue.

After their first trial with a small, hand-shaken container, their next batch produced several hundred litres in a giant blender-like mixer created by Bruce, an apprentice machinist. "We decided to jump right in," grins Allan.

Since then, the brothers have moved their operation from a shack with a dirt floor into a shipping container, and the quality of their fuel has steadily improved.

They collect used cooking oil from various chip trucks, restaurants, and resorts between Huntsville and Sundridge. Right now, their fuel production is limited by the amount of vegetable oil they can collect. With their setup, they have the ability to produce about 600 litres of biodiesel a day.

In the future, they hope supply their own vegetable oil by growing crops and encouraging others in the area to follow suit. Allan notes: "We have about 20 acres we could realistically use for cultivation, and right now it's just sitting there."

Richard Thomas, their neighbor, who is also an environmentalist and current reeve of Armour Township, is currently growing a trial crop of Russian sunflowers, which he describes as "abundant, highly viable plants." Thomas says his results "should be enough to encourage others to plant any number of crops."

At the moment, though, Bruce and Allan's focus is on refining the process for creating large amounts of good-quality biodiesel. "We'd like to see our biodiesel meet ASTM (American Society of Testing and Materials) standards," says Allan.

The Hodders have two newly modified mixing tanks, an 80-litre one for methanol (wood alcohol) and lye, and a 300- litre one for combining the other two ingredients with vegetable oil. They now have pump that circulates the contents of their smaller mixing tank. "Last year we had problems with lye settling to the bottom and not getting mixed in," explains Allan.

Bruce designed and constructed the pump, because they weren't able to find one graded to pump the corrosive sodium methoxide that results from mixing lye and methanol. As well, he ensured that they would no longer have to handle the dangerous mixture by devising a way to transfer it directly into the larger tank.

"Allan knows how to use the computer and gets all the information. I just build things," Bruce says modestly. However, his many creations and modifications, along with Allan's obvious expertise with the chemistry behind the process, are what have made the team such a success.

Another recent development has been the 'washing' of finished fuel. Washing fuel is particularly important in creating quality fuel from used oil, according to Allan.

This involves using air bubbles to push water up through the biodiesel. When the bubbles burst at the top, the water settles back down, absorbing any soap or extra methanol that is in suspension in the fuel. "The water will actually turn milky white," Allan describes.

They repeat the process several times, until the wash water is clear and a light shone through a window on one side of the wash tank is clearly visible from a window on the other side.

The final stop for the fuel is the holding tank above a recently-acquired metered fuel pump, which is connected to a larger tank in the freight container through an underground line. Family and friends pull up to the pump and fill up for 70 cents per litre, "which just recovers our cost," says Allan. "In the future, when our fuel has been tested to meet ASTM standards, we hope to offer it to the public for about 85 cents a litre."

Although the Hodders' knowledge and setup are impressive, they say that making biodiesel for personal use is not outside the average person's reach. "There's nothing special about any of this," insists Allan.

Bruce adds, "We just happen to have the equipment to put it all together, the welder and plasma cutter that can cut the metal." These things, they say, are only necessary for those who want to have a large operation.

"Most processors are smaller than this. They'll make maybe 30 gallons of fuel," says Allan, adding, "A lot of people don't even need a processor. You can take a 10-litre drum, fill it with the right stuff and kick it against a wall and mix it, or shake it up however you want; a two-litre pop bottle works fine. I've made a lot of batches in little pop bottles. That's how I test it to make sure I'm going to get a good reaction."

For the Hodders, however, manufacturing the fuel has become a large part of the entire family's life. Not only have they spent many evenings and weekends on the project, but the financial investment has also been substantial. "It cost us thousands of dollars to set this up, by the time you've got motors to run the mixers and all these pumps and lines," Allan says. As well, they purchase large amounts of methanol and lye before seeing any cash in return. "Around 35 cents per litre of the final fuel is methanol cost," Allan comments, "and then lye adds another 8 cents or so per litre."

Their commitment appears to be paying off. A 12-member steering committee of representatives from the Townships of Armour, Magnetawan and Strong and the Town of Kearney came to see the operation in early July, and it is quite likely that the Hodders' biodiesel will make its way into at least one area municipality's vehicles.

Of his township's desire to use biodiesel, Thomas says, "I think I can say it's unanimous on the part of the councillors."

There's just one catch: "It is not possible to sell biodiesel without it being properly certified," Thomas explains, "and there are strict rules about how a municipality can participate in a private business." Nonetheless, he says, "We're looking for a way that will allow us to participate."

At the beginning of August, he was optimistic that it would be possible to start using biodiesel in one truck within a few weeks.

Growing interest in their biodiesel gives the Hodder brothers the sense that they are taking small steps toward bringing Canada up to speed with rest of world in terms of alternative fuels.

It's a lofty goal, but they are working steadily in that direction - and, according to neighbor Thomas, the Hodders are models for us all. "They understand what matters," says Thomas. "People like that are essential for our future."