Once upon a time, whenever something of significance happened in my life, I made sense of it by blogging about it. Though I don’t blog as regularly or as intimately as I used to, I still feel the need to share a seismic shift in our lives, but each time I start to write, I falter. I don’t even know where to start.

My dad died on Saturday morning. If you’ve been around for a while, you know that he had been sick on and off through the years. He had a liver transplant when I was pregnant with Tristan, but in the end it was heart and kidney failure that took him. He went into the hospital in June for a fairly routine concern and was diagnosed with congestive heart failure; he never really recovered. We were graced with a full summer to say goodbye, and for that I am deeply grateful. He died in his sleep at home in the early hours of Saturday, at peace in his own bed and with his family nearby.

My dad and I spent quite a few hours together in the past few weeks. Though he was mostly confined to his bed, we figured out that if we were careful navigating the stairs, we could get him into my car for a little change of scenery by driving the back country roads around Barrhaven. I’ll be forever grateful for those quiet moments we spent together.

Quite a few years ago now, I wrote a post for my Dad’s 65th birthday that says a lot of what I’d like to say today. And last year, I wrote this post for my parents’ 50th (!!) wedding anniversary. Threaded through the years of blog posts in the archives, you’ll find dozens of stories and vignettes and photos featuring him, because he has always been a huge part of my life.

My mom and I wrote an obituary that ended up being way too long to publish, but I thought I’d share it here. I can’t come up with anything close to eloquent today, but with this and what’s already in the archives, I don’t need to.

With sadness in our hearts, we share the news that Lou Donders has passed away. Lou was born in May 1944 in Dusseldorf, Germany, the only son of Katie and Harry Donders. The family moved to London, Ontario when Lou was a boy after spending a few years in Tilburg, Holland. It was at Catholic Central High School in London that he met the love of his life, Frances (nee Conlin). Lou and Fran were married in 1966 and had a long and happy marriage filled with love and laughter. They moved to Ottawa to be closer to family when their first grandson was born.

As a six year old boy in Tilburg, Lou formed a boy’s marching band which is still performing to this day. At 16, Lou began teaching drums and later became a professional musician, playing all types of music including symphony. He had a quick, dry wit and a curious mind. Lou, who became affectionately known as Papa Lou to his five grandchildren, leaves behind his wife Fran, his daughter Danielle (Mark), his son Sean (Natalie) and his grandchildren Tristan, Simon, Noah, Brooke and Lucas. He will be remembered by countless friends in London and Ottawa. Although there will be no service, whenever you see a dog happily wagging its tail, full of the joy of life, we invite you celebrate Lou’s life with fond memories of a life well lived.


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I didn’t learn about s’mores until I was an adult. We weren’t a camping family, though toasting marshmallows was an occasional but revered treat growing up. How I survived into adulthood without the melty, sticky joy of toasted marshmallows and chocolate smushed between graham crackers in my life is a mystery.

I saw a variation of this fire-pit free oven-baked s’mores recipe online, and adapted it to what we had on hand one day when I was looking for a quick treat for the kids. Yes, of course it was for the kids. Lucas loved it so much we had s’mores instead of birthday cake for him one year. I think it might even be easier than the authentic version!

oven-bakeds'mores dip

You’ll need a bag of marshmallows (we use the big ones, but not the giant ones), a bag of chocolate chips (we used milk chocolate, for the classic s’mores flavour, approximate bag size 270 grams) and a box of graham crackers. This recipe is ridiculously forgiving – use skor chips, rainbow marshmallows and bacon dippers if that floats your boat!

You’ll also need a baking dish. The original recipe I saw used a cast iron pan, but my version pre-dates my cast iron pan ownership, and now that I do own one, I’m not sure I’d want marshmallow glue glommed all over it. I use a pyrex pie plate, but just about any baking dish approximately 8 to 9 inches across would do the trick.

Preheat your oven to 400F and move your rack up to one of the higher levels.

Sprinkle half the bag of the chocolate chips into the bottom of your baking dish, distributing them more or less evenly across the bottom of the dish. Add a few more, and maybe eat a couple when the kids aren’t looking.

S'mores oven baked dip

Now place the marshmallows on top, flat side down, touching each other. It took about half a bag to fill the pan.

Place the dish in the oven and WATCH IT CAREFULLY. It will only take a few minutes for the marshmallows to start to puff up and toast on top.

Marshmallow dip in the oven

You want to hit the sweet spot (pardon the pun) where the marshmallows are toasty on top, gooey in the middle, and the chocolate chips are melted. Five, maybe ten minutes, but seriously, don’t take your eyes off them or the whole thing will burn. Ask me now I know!

Take it out of the oven and serve immediately. Serve with graham crackers for scooping and dipping. We were so keen to eat ours that I entirely forgot to photograph this important step.

My kids each have a different approach on how to eat this. One dips his crackers like chips in dip, but another scoops and uses a second graham cracker to make a more classic squashed and sticky s’mores experience. Make sure you scoop deeply enough to get some chocolate with each bite!

CAUTION: the dish is very hot. You may want to scoop some out on to a separate plate for really little fingers.

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This is the simplest dessert I know, and one of the boys’ favourites! Let me know if you try it. It’s a great way to have the summery flavour of s’mores all year long!


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Did you know that there’s a 10,000 year old sand dune hiding in a pine forest in suburban Ottawa?

Ottawa's hidden sand dunes

Neat, right?

dune_2008map The sand dune in the Pinhey Forest is an ancient remnant of the last ice age, when what we now know as Ottawa was submerged under the great Champlain Sea. Even 100 years ago, the dune system was up to 10 times larger than it is today, stretching from Woodroffe across Slack to Merivale Road, but suburban homes, businesses and well-intentioned tree planting by the National Capital Commission in the 1950s have reduced it to a fraction of its former size. This graphic from the Biodiversity Conservancy shows the dune size as shown in 1925 aerial images outlined against the current dune inside the yellow dotted line.

I have been hearing about the sand dune hidden in a pine forest in the Greenbelt for years. Finally, one day toward the end of summer, two of the three boys and I set off on a little adventure to check it out.

I’ve driven down Slack Road countless times, and had no clue about the unique and fascinating ecosystem hiding behind behind the pine trees, but it’s certainly accessible when you set out to look for it. Park on the street near the mailboxes on Pineland Ave near Vaan Drive and you’ll see the entrance to the dunes. It’s truly hidden in plain sight.

Ottawa's hidden sand dunes

Parts of the dunes are roped off, but there is plenty of room to walk around and explore. When the boys noticed some of the posts had been knocked down, they stopped to prop them back up again.

Ottawa's hidden sand dunes

We poked around the edges of the dunes, noting the towering pines in one area, and the oak and maples flourishing in another. Be careful, we noticed a few places where poison ivy was also flourishing. You can see how leaves and pine needles would fall and decompose, creating a mulch that would allow plants that wouldn’t ordinarily thrive in sand to take hold and encroach on the dunes.

Ottawa's hidden sand dunes

Ottawa's hidden sand dunes

Ottawa's hidden sand dunes

Ottawa's hidden sand dunes

Not only is the dune an interesting geological artifact, but it’s home to plants and insects that don’t live anywhere else in the city. Conservationists are working to protect the dunes against the constant encroachment of native and invasive plant species. We originally thought these tables were part of an archaeological dig, but on reflection I’m betting they are used to filter the sand of other bio material.

Ottawa's hidden sand dunes

Like most National Capital Commission trails, you’ll find a few picnic tables and even a washroom on the site. Exploring the dunes was a quick excursion – I’d be surprised if we were there more than an hour, even with a bit of poking around the walking paths through the surrounding forests. It made for an interesting set of conversations about the geological history of Ottawa, though, and about how people and nature leave their footprints on ecosystems. The boys were intrigued by the idea of a desert hiding in plain sight in a neighbourhood we drive past regularly.

Ottawa's hidden sand dunes

There’s more information about efforts to preserve the dunes and some of the unique plants and insects on the Biodiversity Conservancy website. It would be interesting to go back in the heart of winter to see the dunes in various seasons.

Did you know about the secret sand dunes hiding in the Greenbelt? Have you visited? What did you think?


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Of all the things in nature, save for maybe PEI beaches, I think I have more photographs of coneflowers than anything else. There’s something about them, like sunflowers, that I just can’t resist. Heaven is 30 minutes in my garden on a quiet Sunday morning, creeping around them and playing with angles — and then hours spent with Lightroom and Photoshop, satisfying my curiosity on the question “I wonder what would happen if I tried this. Oooo, how about this?”

Apparently, THIS is what happens:

Coneflower studies

Coneflower studies

Coneflower studies

Coneflower studies

Coneflower studies

Coneflower studies

This next one, the observant viewer will notice, is not a coneflower. Somehow, a rogue clematis caught my attention. Isn’t it a little late in the season for clematis? Regardless, I loved the dreamy effect of the very shallow depth of field and the way the leaves seem to swirl around the purple centre.

Coneflower studies

You think this is repetitive? You should see the other 114 variations on my hard drive!

Do you have a favourite? The more I look at it, the more I think maybe that first one might be wall-worthy.


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Sometimes, I have an anecdote that I want to share like I did back in the day, but I don’t have a photo to go with it. Despite having my own stock library of nearly 6,000 images on Flickr alone, sometimes there just isn’t a photo that goes with the story.

And sometimes, I have photos that I like that don’t really have a story.

I’m really sort of appalled that it took me this long to marry the two of them together.

I like this photo, of a red fishing shack full of lobster traps. We discovered it wandering around the fishing village of French River, in Prince Edward Island.

image by Ottawa family photographer Danielle Donders

When Tristan first stayed in the house by himself, I used to make him text me when he arrived and about every hour. That lasted about a month before we both got tired of it. I was less strict when Simon started staying by himself, partly because I had calmed down a bit, and partly because by then Tristan was usually also home with him. They were both quizzed thoroughly on a long line of do’s and don’ts — don’t answer the door, don’t tell people you are home alone, don’t use the stove. Okay, maybe they were all don’ts.

This summer being home on vacation, Lucas learned how to prepare a tin of tomato soup for lunch. A few days later, Beloved and I returned from running a few errands together, having left the three boys with the elders more or less in charge, and saw the soup-rimmed pot and bowl in the sink. We looked at each other, at the intact stove, at the opened tin and dirty pot, and flinched.

As happens so often with the third child, the rules slipped a little bit. Maybe because he wasn’t staying home entirely by himself, or maybe just because he’s the third child and that’s the way it is with third children, Lucas didn’t get the lecture about not using the stove. It’s only the second or third time he’s ever used the stove. He’s not the most attentive creature when it comes to details. Or safety. Somehow, though, he’d remembered to turn off the burner, and to avoid putting anything flammable near the stove, and even put the dirty dishes in the sink.

Of course, everything was fine. I’ve got three more grey hairs, though.


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While La Machine might have been the most amazing street spectacle ever to visit Ottawa (no hyperbole here!) it’s not too late to visit Ottawa’s other fabulous FREE summer shows. If you’re into light shows, I hear Kontinuum and the Northern Lights show on Parliament Hill are both awesome, but we were blown away (again!) by the spectacle that is MosaiCanada.

MosaiCanada-2

What is MosaiCanada? A beautiful tribute to Canadian culture embodied in the most amazing living sculptures, created from millions of annual plants and flowers. You are led on a wandering path past a life-sized replica of a CP rail station and passenger train with steam locomotive, past dragons and foxes and prospectors and totems and hockey players and Mother Earth herself.

It. is. amazing.

MosaiCanada-4

I loved it, the kids loved it. It was terribly hot, blazingly sunny and ridiculously crowded the day we went, and we still loved it. Tristan loved the dragons with their Asian flair (sadly, not quite as cool as Long Ma), Simon liked the hockey players and the northern lights, and Lucas loved Mother Earth so much that he asked to borrow my phone so he could take his own photo of her.

MosaiCanada-5

Though I loved Mother Earth in her majesty, and Anne of Green Gables waiting patiently outside the station on her suitcases, it was the tiny details I loved most – the play of colours, the way the sculptures interacted with one another, the incredible detail in each piece. Really, I only took a few photos because it’s the kind of thing that pictures simply cannot do justice. You need to experience it in real life to get it.

MosaiCanada-3

This is a perfect adventure for families of all ages and sizes. The paths are wide and stroller-friendly, and there are benches often if one neds to stop and rest, as well as plenty of seats in the shade. Kids can wander, within reason, and can get quite close before the rope barriers remind them not to touch. The colours are breathtaking, and the flowers achingly beautiful. It took us a little shy of two hours including a four-block walk to and from parking on a busy summer morning to take it in.

And it’s FREE! Parking can be expensive, but we found free two hour parking on the streets just north of Jacques Cartier Park on a Tuesday morning. This one is definitely worth a morning or afternoon out – I’ll be heading back in the fall to see if or how the seasons change the sculptures.

MosaiCanada-1

If you go: MosaiCanada is at Jacques Cartier Park in Gatineau through October 15, 2017. It’s open 10 am to 7 pm every day. Admission is free, but expect a queue during peak times. Guided tours are available for $10 (we just read the plentiful signs near each sculpture.) Parking on site is $20, but there are less expensive and free options within a three or four block walk. See the MosaiCanada site for more details.


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In which the family finally meets Chef Michael Smith (!) at the Village Feast

30 July 2017 Ah, me boys

If you’re a long-time blog reader, you know that as a family, we have been stalking Chef Michael Smith for about four years now. We’ve long been fans of “the world’s tallest freestanding chef” and have been visiting his Flavour Shack in Souris every year that we visit Prince Edward Island. For my birthday in […]

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Photos of the day: La Machine in Ottawa

28 July 2017 Ottawa Family Fun

It isn’t every day that one gets to see a giant spider and a three-story tall dragon performed street theatre on busy Ottawa streets. I was curious to see La Machine, the unique street theatre presentation featuring a giant mechanical spider and a steam-and-fire breathing horse-dragon, but was leery of the crowds. In the end, […]

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Photos of the day: The beautiful lighthouses of PEI

27 July 2017 Ottawa to PEI

Lighthouses are an iconic part of the PEI experience. In 2016, we even drove from one tip of the island to the other to earn our “tip to tip” lighthouse certificate! This trip, we visited no fewer than seven lighthouses in our adventures exploring PEI. They are as varied as they are beautiful, but after […]

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Photo of the day: the boys in Souris

26 July 2017 Ah, me boys

We’ve just returned from our annual vacation in Prince Edward Island, and I have a *cough* few photos to share. This might be my new favourite photo of the boys, taken in Souris. I might have thought, years ago, that vacationing with teenagers would have been a very different experience. We’ve just spent the most […]

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