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Platform For Dreams

AN-McCallansLess than three weeks ago, I was clinging to my seat aboard a Beechcraft 1900D as we approached the runway in Deer Lake. After a seven hour wait in St. John’s, I’d managed to get aboard a plane that would take me across Newfoundland, but it was going to be an eventful flight. St. John’s had been warm and windy — 10 degrees but with winds gusting up to 130 km/h. Deer Lake was wrapped up in a blizzard that had shut down schools.

Fortunately, our pilot was excellent; despite the winds and the snow, he got us onto the runway without so much as a bump. We taxied to the terminal and deplaned into a snow squall. We collected our bags outside the aircraft, then hurried through a whiteout to the arrivals gate.

That’s where my friend Ken Thomas was waiting. He had Mars bars for both of us — figuring correctly that, after seven hours in St. John’s Airport, I could use a bit of a boost. After just a few minutes we’d set off for Woody Point — normally a forty-five minute drive from the airport, but more than an hour as we picked our way carefully through the storm.

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The slow-going didn’t bother me, of course — there’s no need to rush to paradise, especially when you’re making the trip with a great friend. Few could be greater than Ken.

I’d first met Ken and Darlene Thomas in 2011. After years of wanting to see Gros Morne National Park, Jacqui, Peter and I had finally carved time out of our schedules, and online research suggested there was no better place to stay than Seaside Suites.

The internet was uncommonly correct. Seaside Suites was perfect –– so perfect that we kept coming back to the same place for five straight summers, each time adding another day or two to the trip.

Part of the reason for this loyalty was Gros Morne itself; from the Tablelands and Trout River to Western Brook Pond, the Arches, and Western Bay Sands… even Bonne Bay itself… there is nowhere else that feels quite so right. Even the whales would agree — occasionally they’d stop by the deck at the Suites for a visit. Also present would be porpoises, gulls, eagles, and more. Gros Morne is a magical crossroads, and it’s always a pleasure to be there.

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But as wonderful as the place is, the people are just as important, and in Gros Morne we made true friends.

Ken and Darlene built, owned and operated Seaside Suites, and they had much to be proud of. From the time of our first visit, they added new suites, then bought and completely transformed a past-prime local motel into the Bonne Bay Inn. I’ve never stayed in better accommodations anywhere, and I can’t understate the importance they hold for me — or for Iceberg.

Much of Champions comes from Gros Morne: when Alex comes ashore in Whitecoat, she’s on Trout River beach; the badlands of the new world are the Tablelands; we were at the Suites while the Dundee Diehards were shooting the cover for The Count. Numerous other connections will be revealed in the years ahead, none of which might have been possible if we hadn’t visited Woody Point.

And we might not have visited Woody Point, if not for Seaside Suites.

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Though operating and expanding a five-star oasis in the middle of paradise might have been enough for some, Ken and Darlene did even more: Ken was the Mayor of Woody Point, while Darlene became the Director of Hospitality Newfoundland. They had a greater vision for what Bonne Bay could be, and weren’t inclined to just sit by and hope it might be realized. They were determined to make things happen, and their efforts have met with success.

You count yourself lucky when you make friends like Ken and Darlene. Over five years visiting Woody Point, we graduated from guests to hosts — always setting aside an evening to have dinner with them, and as much time as possible to talk. We’d share stories, discuss ideas, learn and teach. The best kind of friendship.

When they came to Edmonton to visit Ken’s son, we hosted them again, and when I knew I’d be flying to Halifax to see Sackville, and St. John’s for Sci Fi on the Rock, there was no way I could pass up the chance to stop by and see them.

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It was a brilliant visit. When we emerged from the storm and arrived at the Bonne Bay Inn, everything was a delight. Ken cooked some fine dinners, I offered up baked treats courtesy of our dear friend Esther Buckley, and we tested some new scotch at the Inn’s pub.

When the weather settled the morning after I arrived, I slipped out for a quick drive to see Trout River and the Tablelands (spectacular in the snow), and to visit the Suites. For the most part, though, we all just sat in the Inn’s lounge, looking out over the snowy bay.

I read a memoir about the Newfoundland Regiment, Ken and Darlene did some work, and we spent hours chatting about plans for the coming year. We watched curling — Ken had represented Newfoundland at the Brier four times — and even set aside an hour to watch Cold Water Cowboys. After a hectic trip, it was an ideal day of rest in paradise.

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The next day, when Ken gave me a lift back to Deer Lake to catch my flight, we hatched some plans. He was coming to Edmonton to visit his son, and during the trip we’d pick an evening to meet for supper, and get tickets for the Champions Cup (a Grand Slam of Curling event coming to neighboring Sherwood Park). We also planned to talk more about writing — something he and I discussed a great deal, because he had plenty of stories to tell, and was a great sounding board for ideas.

Ken was due to arrive in Edmonton tomorrow.

Instead, yesterday, he died.

It was sudden — terrible evidence of all those things we know about life being fragile, and time being precious.

It was too soon — he had so many plans, so much good work still to do.

It was unfair — left without him now are his his family, his children, his best friend and wife, Darlene.

No one can claim that Ken didn’t live to the utmost. Though he left some things unfinished, the amount he accomplished is immense. One of my dearest principles is that you must chase your dreams with a smile — that you’ll never regret the adventure. He did that so very well.

But to speak about Ken Thomas in the past tense is a tragedy. To speak of what he did, not what he will do, is heartbreaking. All of us here — Jacqui, Peter and a myself — can only offer our condolences to his family, to our friend Darlene, and to all of Gros Morne.

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Selfishly: I’m glad my plane made it through the wind and the snow to reach Deer Lake. I’m grateful that I got to visit with Ken one last time — to speak of stories still to be told, dreams still to be pursued, and adventures still to be had.

I’m glad we spoke of the importance of his work, and how much it meant to all of us here. I’m fortunate that I had the chance to compliment him one more time on his determination, and his achievements.

Ken dedicated himself to building something spectacular in the most spectacular place on Earth. His dream created a platform upon which others could stand — could pursue their own dreams, in a place where dreams seem possible.

Now he ventures beyond a bright horizon, separated from us by a divide we understand too well, and yet not at all. There are many good people with him beyond that horizon, and we wish them all well. But we miss all of them so very much.

The legacy of Ken Thomas will be a great one, with meaning for many. All of our thoughts, prayers, and hopes are now with those dearest to him. We can’t be there for the final service, but we’ll see you all again — whatever new paths lead away from this tragedy, we’ll strive to earn a place amongst them.

But for now, because I believe that good souls endure, my parting words are to Ken himself:

Your story mattered, and it will be told. I hope the weather is fair and that there is adventure to be found, beyond that bright horizon.

Take care. Have fun.

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