The Big Update

Joel's Journal - July 18, 2018 - Volume 3 - Entry #43

A man drives a car. 

The windows are down, the wind is buffeting in, the radio is cranked loud, his smile falters, there’s something rolling between his feet, the wind smacks his ears harder, someone taps him on the shoulder, something jumps from the side of the road and he swerves, then there’s something else on the seat beside him, he can’t glance to see what it is, his hands grip the wheel as someone yells from the backseat, no words, just noise. 


That has been the story of my life this past month. 

My brain is not thought, just noise. A constant mass of stimuli flying into my eyes, ears, nose, and trying to find the proper door to go into, but finding all of them closed. My brain on constant lockdown from any creative energy, any creative flow like it’s locked in some kind of Stranger Things sensory deprivation tank. 

This has happened before. Readers of my past volumes will recognize this period, as I’ve described it before in many different ways. 

But fuck it’s relentless. 

Before I get into the real update (it’s going to be a long one, ye be warned), I just want to say that overall, things are going well. Aside from the muse taking her leave of absence from my shoulder and sailing off to (perhaps) cooler temperatures, leaving me to scramble inside my head feeling like a juggler riding a unicycle across a tightrope when I sit down to write, I’m still happy. 

See, my creative pursuits and my journalism are only parts of my life. They’re large parts, for sure, but there are other parts. It’s during these creative draughts that I tend to lean on these other parts a lot more. It’s the sign of a well-balanced life that when certain parts of your life may be going to shit that the other parts can sustain and balance you out. 

For that reason, I’m thankful to have M to lean on and make me smile when I get home from a day full of lifting mental cinder blocks and thinking thoughts of throwing in the towel. 

Fuck it, there’s more money in PR. 

It’s an evil thought, and one I would never follow through on, but one that can sift through my brain quite often when the words aren’t coming and the debts are staring you in the face, looking the same as they did six months ago. 

Coming home and seeing M on the couch with a big smile and a “hello, my sweet,” to greet me, well, all of that just melts away, her words like a warm breeze on a cool night. 

So, with that all aside, there’s been a lot going on since I left you way back in February. I stepped off the plane in Toronto from Florida and took an indefinite hiatus from this journal. It wasn’t intentional, things just got in the way, then I lost interest, then I found interest in other things, then I wanted to get back to writing here, then I didn’t want to get pulled back into the pressure (the self-imposed pressure), then summer came and I wanted to write in it again, then the doubt came back. 

Then I started writing again. 

Here’s what you missed


The vacation hangover was real after getting back from Florida. 

As if going from the bright colours of Florida to the harsh starkness of Canadian winter was not enough, winters are typically a slow time, and it was a real shock to the system when I sat down at my desk to get to work. 

For the better part of two weeks, I still felt like I was away. My body was in Oshawa, but my brain was still photographing birds in Florida marshes and reading about Boston crime bosses by the pool with a cold beer. 

One of my favourite images I made on the trip. 

One of my favourite images I made on the trip. 

Another favourite from the trip. I love the contrast between the rippled water and the gnarled skin. 

Another favourite from the trip. I love the contrast between the rippled water and the gnarled skin. 

Throughout the month, my hands dabbled in a number of stories across the city, including the protection of a heritage home, the fate of one of Oshawa’s future GO stations, development blowback, and the story of a bullying advocate who has come out the other side of his struggles and is now looking to help others. 

With that said, the highlight was definitely visiting the Darlington Generating Station. I have to say I’ve never seen a nuclear reactor before, or one in pieces for that matter. So, that was pretty cool. 



Refurb of Darlington's reactor reaches halfway point 

On time. On budget.

Four words that officials and dignitaries wanted to make very clear during a recent press conference announcing the latest milestone in the refurbishment of the Darlington Nuclear Generating Station’s quartet of reactors.


When the calendar turned I was already setting my mind to a story that had really gripped me. It actually came about in an odd way because I’d heard through a couple local sources that the Durham Regional Police’s Human Trafficking Unit was having troubles and shrinking. When I reached out to them, it was in fact the very opposite, and I was able to get a great story about the transition and develop a great source in the head of the unit. I’m really happy with the story that came out of the research and interviews, and trust me, it’s not the last you’ll see from me on this topic. 



Hitting a moving target 

This may come as a surprise.

Some of the most vibrant and bustling locations in our community can be lurking with so much darkness.

Many people I spoke with while working on this piece said they didn’t even know human trafficking was an issue in the GTA, when in fact, it’s rampant. Do a little research and if you live anywhere along the Highway 401 corridor, you’ll never look at the hotels in your area the same way again. It’s a truly awful crime. 

After finishing that up I was lucky enough to sit down with the retiring curator of the Robert McLaughlin Gallery here in Oshawa for a long chat about her career. The interview went great, mostly because Linda is such a lovely person to talk to. It made writing this tribute to her effort and what she’s done for the Oshawa art’s community very easy. 

At the same time as this was going on, the Oshawa Generals season was wrapping up, and I was digging deep into the Opioid Response Plan released by Lakeridge Health in response to the opioid crisis. 


Back home in Toronto, I’d gone on few walks with M to get to know our new home a little better, and I’d turned my lenses toward shooting a bit of street photography. The bug bit really hard and for a few weeks, I spent my time on the street and in front of my computer making a few images that are probably some of my favourites so far in 2018. 



I wrapped the month up back at home with the parents while M worked the weekend. We bundled up for a late winter hike and explored the drained floor of Laurel Creek. The deadheads looked like giant, dried up crustaceans lining the shore of some alien ocean. 

It was pretty great. 



Spring came in like a child with a temper tantrum. The windstorms that kicked up knocked out power in several areas of Oshawa, downed trees, and, in one case, ripped the brick wall clean off a South Oshawa townhouse. 

The footage of the bricks crumbling down went fairly viral across the city, and when I went back the next morning to check it out, the damage was substantial. I snapped a couple photos for the paper. I think one made the front page, I’d have to look back and check though. 

Thankfully, the nasty weather dissipated for the first weekend of April when my brother’s and I had booked our annual weekend in MacGregor Point. For those who don’t know, this is the fourth year we’ve done the trip, and it’s officially become tradition for my three brothers and myself. The weather was a bit cooler than we may have liked, but we were still able to get some decent hikes in, cook some great meals on the barbecue, enjoy a couple camp fires, and put back a few too many beers, scotch and beer pong games. All in all, it was a fairly great weekend, and one where I was able to snap a few images that I’m rather happy with. 

For some reason, as spring arrived, I started to retreat further into my own little bubble and I didn’t share any of the pictures I took here. Don’t ask me why.  But here they are. 

The Wittnebel brothers courtesy of the self-timer. 

The Wittnebel brothers courtesy of the self-timer. 

In terms of work, it was the month of union issues, as Oshawa’s firefighter union, upset with the city’s response to the deadly fire in January, took their concerns directly to council (a big no-no apparently), and at the same time, the DRPS union was releasing a report that highlighted a serious lack of confidence in the police chief. I’m not a labour reporter, but still managed to wrap my head around these issues fairly well (I believe) as the issues progressed. 

I also wrote about another heritage house, the resignation of a city councillor, Jane’s Walks, food trucks and much more. 

The highlight was the tear down of Five Points Mall late in the month. The old shopping mall was bought some time ago and the redevelopment is just starting now. I was lucky enough to catch the demolition in progress and snapped some epic photos of the massive glass pyramids atop the old building slanted and cracked as they began to tumble. I was whooping and fist pumping behind my lens with practically every shutter click. 

Five Points to five piles 

Five Points to five piles 


Wrapping up most of my work for the week, the new month started on the road. 

Taking advantage of a few days off for M, the two of us travelled to Banff, Alberta for a whirlwind trip of absolute bliss. 

Ever sine moving back from Alberta, I’ve missed the mountains, I’ve missed their dry heat, I’ve missed the forests, the lakes and the rivers. I’ve missed it all. 

It’s one of my favourite places on earth, and to be able to spend four days immersed in it with my favourite person in the world, was the best way to bump me out of the creative funk I’d been in since February. 

We flew into Calgary via Toronto late on a Thursday evening. Following a brief mix-up with the rental car company, one that left my head down, hands wringing through my hair, we were able to get it sorted and land a pretty sweet Dodge Charger to drive around for our trip. 

It was late though, and after tossing our bags in the trunk, we hit the road after midnight to head for Banff, about an hour and a half drive. M, never having seen the mountains, was eagerly peaking out the windows as we left the bright flourescent lights of the city and pushed into the complete blackness of the Kananaskis. 

Unfortunately, the night was pulled over the earth like a blanket, leaving the mountains as only looming black shadows and nothing more. 

Arriving at the hotel, we were greeted by a gentlemen lumberjack passed out on the stones out front. We checked in, and almost immediately crashed. 

The next morning, I awoke with the light starting to creep in past the edges of the blinds across the room. My mind was blank, which I was happy about. I told myself I wasn’t going to write on the trip because I needed to get away, away from everything writing and creative thought. 

I pulled back the blinds and was greeted by the wooden chalet apartments that lined the back of the hotel, and the rising hulk of a mountain that pushed from the trees in the valley like the belly of a giant. I immediately shook M awake, her face emerging from the sheets with a smile amid a coif of soft brown hair. 

“Mountains,” I said

We dashed to the window together and pushed out onto the balcony. Her eyes opened wide as she stepped out, and I watched her soak it all in with a smile on my face, hoping that she would fall in love with this place as much as I had. The brightness in her eyes suggested that perhaps it was a possibility. 

For breakfast we stopped at a small cafe on the corner of one of Banff’s main streets, secured a space by the fireplace on the patio (not that it was necessary, it was super beautiful outside), and ate our breakfast, drank coffee, and I read through the local paper to see what qualified as news in Banff. 

In my happy place. 

In my happy place. 


After fuelling up, we hit the road for our first stop on the trip, that being a trip to the top of the mountain via gondola. I’ve been out west multiple times, along with my brief stint living out there, and I’ve never done this excursion before. So, it was great for M and I to share a little excitement together and do something new for both of us. I admit, I was a bit nervous as the gondola bumped into position and we stepped inside. It bounced its way out from beneath the canopy of shadows and out into the sunlight, rising up, up and up. 

I shoved the camera over my face and began snapping away. Partly because it helped detach my stomach from the rising vertigo, but also because the views were spectacular, including the twisting and turning Bow River, and Tunnel Mountain, which began to look more like a small hill than a mountain the higher we got. 

At the top, we walked from peak to peak along the boardwalk, snapped some selfies, and some timed-shots of the two of us. Met a couple Whiskey Jacks and took their picture, and also spotted a mountain goat licking the salt beneath the boardwalk with a few friends. 

Stepping in out of the wind, we grabbed a nice pizza to split for lunch and sipped a beer while enjoying the 360 view of the mountains around us. At that moment, life was good, need to bookmark that one for the highlight reel of 2018.


Heading back down the mountain I was able to snap a couple photos of M as she looked out at the vistas around us. She doesn’t like when I aim the camera in her direction, but her beautiful face just calls for it, and sometimes I’m able to capture some perfect moments. I could stare at this one for hours, I absolutely love that small curve of a smile. I can look at it for hours. 


From the gondola we retreated to the Charger and charged (hehe) our way over to Lake Louise to see the state of things over there. Unfortunately, the place was still fairly frozen, and being this late, the snow was starting to turn a light grey. Only a small portion of water was revealed, giving a brief preview of the shining luminance that would become the glacier-fed lake later this year. 

On the way back to Banff we spotted a couple elk grazing on the side of the road. They were a bit curious when we hopped out and I tried to get as close as I could. Overall though, they were pretty chill and sauntered off slowly as I snapped away. 

That night we grabbed a nice dinner, had a few drinks, caught up and reconnected. I say that not because were were ever disconnected, but because when you’re not on vacation, your mind is always in a bunch of different places (at least mine is), and being able to sit there and focus on her and her alone, the smiles are real, the kisses are more intimate and everything just feels right. 


For day two, we were up early, packing the bag with snacks and drinks and heading off in the Charger for a trip up and down the Icefields Parkway. We knew we wanted to check out the Glacier Skywalk, which is fairly far along the route from Banff to Jasper, but we didn’t really have much of a plan otherwise. 

There are a couple big landmarks along the way, like Athabasca Falls, the Columbia Icefield, Crowfoot Glacier, etc. And for all of these you generally pull over and take a brief look at the scenery. However, there are so many stunning views along this road, which basically goes straight through the mountains, that you’ll be pulling over for a lot more than just the landmarks. 

We spent the entire day on the road, walked on the skywalk, thousands of feet above the valley floor (scary), walked the base of the Columbia Glacier (windy) and made friends with a Raven who reminded me why I want to get one tattooed on my arm. 

All in all, it was a spectacular day for photography, and we capped it off at Banff’s only Mexican restaurant eating nachos, guac, and other delights while drinking margaritas and cold Sol to celebrate Cinco de Mayo. 


For our third and final day we explored much of downtown Banff and the surrounding area. We heard about a waterfall close by and walked over to check it out. The falls weren't much to look at, but the exposed rocks and the desaturated green of the rushing water made for some awesome shots. I imagine them in a series, using three or four on a wall together. 


After that, we hit the road for the city, the plan being to grab dinner with my uncle and his partner at his place in Calgary before heading to the airport for our late flight. 

We arrived in perfect time to cook a beer can chicken, drink a couple of my uncle’s homemade IPAs, shoot a few games of pool, and catch up with some family that unfortunately we don’t see that often. My uncle and I got real close when I was living out west and I would make frequent trips from Athabasca to Calgary. I’ve missed him a lot since moving back. And while we weren’t able to polish off an entire torpedo keg after a day of snowboarding this time around, being able to drink a couple cold ones with him was a great way to end the trip.

 Back home again, the vacation hangover was too real this time, and for some reason, I (again), shared very few of the thousands of pictures I took. I’ve narrowed that thousands down to less than 200 I’m super happy with. I probably need to do another cull, and then perhaps it’s time to make a photo book or something. 

Anyway, back in the office, I was back to writing about heritage houses (a lot this year, I know), this time it was The White House (not the one you’re thinking about), wrote about the start of the municipal election race, the search for a missing Oshawa man, the Ontario Health Coalition’s efforts to urge provincial parties to do more for healthcare following the election, and about the Oshawa firefighters honouring a group of their retiring members. This was a new event for me, and one I was happy to attend, my invite being secured by making a good source with the president of the firefighters union the month before. 

I also photographed some skateboarders for our front page. 

And also had a few visits with Danes, during one of which I was able to get some good shots when the light was just buttery smooth. 


June started with a shock. 

Driving into Whitby on Highway 401, someone's bicycle fell off the back of their car or trailer or something and came cartwheeling down the highway. I was boxed in, and didn’t see it until the car in front of me swerved out of the way and there was a bike filling my windshield. 

If I had been three seconds earlier that morning, it would have come right through into my lap, thankfully, I wasn’t and it dropped down out of sight, slamming into the passenger side corner of my bumper, taking one of my grill panels with it and leaving behind a nasty gash across Gandalf’s side. 

Fun. The first week didn’t get much better either. 

Later that week saw me out at just after 7 a.m., standing across the road with a bunch of other reporters, watching as police pulled a bodybag containing a murder victim from an Oshawa house. 

You’re there to do a job, it’s what you need to tell yourself consistently, and get the job done. It’s never easy though, at least it’s not for me. Coming home to M was extra appreciated that night, collapsing on the couch beside her and putting my head in her lap, trying to push it all away. 

After that, I covered an election victory on June 7, a battle reenactment, and wrote some more about the DRPS body worn camera project. 

M and I took in a Blue Jays game, leaving at the bottom of the 11th when nobody had yet to score. 

I was also fortunate enough to travel to Ottawa to spend the day on Parliament Hill with Durham’s MP Erin O’Toole. It was a great day, made extra special by the fact that it was probably one of my few chances to see Parliament before it closes this fall for 10 years of renovations. 

It was a really great experience, but the story that came out of it has yet to run, and I will save saying anything more on the matter until it does. 

Mid-month marked another life-changing experience. Well, body-changing is probably more accurate. After waiting for more than a year, I was able to secure eight hours with my tattoo artist and get some considerable work done on my birds. There’s another session to get things wrapped up, but I’m super happy with how things turned out. 


Okay, wow, things are getting out of hand here. Longest. Journal. Ever. 

So as I mentioned at the get-go, July has been fairly muddled, my brain unable to get the creative energy I need to keep all of my projects going. 

However, the small bits of energy I’ve been able to muster have allowed me to make progress on my novel. 

Yes, throughout all of these months, I have been working on that as well, eeking out a few hours every Saturday morning to write. We surpassed the 100,000 word plateau and now we’re well on our way to the climax. I’m guaranteed to finish it before the fall. I’m happy to say that I think it’s some of my best fiction writing yet. It needs improvements, for sure, but some of the scenes have caught even me by surprise. I can’t wait to share it.

Okay, finally, we’ve reached the end. 

All I need to mention is that M and I spent a great Canada Day weekend in the woods with our friends Mike and Larissa. We spent the few days sitting on chairs in the shade, drinking cold beer, and throwing Frisbees at one another. It was a great time. Finally, earlier this month was my family’s annual Men’s Week trip, where all the men on my mom’s side of the family meet for a weekend at a family cottage. I won’t say much else, but there was kayaking, drinking, poker, and washers, and I snapped a few photos. 

Mostly though, what happens at the cottage, stays at the cottage. 

If you’ve made it this far, thank you for reading. 

More to come in the weeks ahead (I hope). 


- J.J.W. 

Joel Wittnebel