Trading sharks for bears: Meet the Hill family

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By Kathryn Hill

This is the second in a three-part series about a teacher exchange involving a local family, the Hallmans, and an Australian family, the Hills. Here you’ll read an account of the Hill family’s life in Muskoka over the past nine months. A third story, about the two families meeting in Vancouver at the end of the exchange, will appear on Huntsville Doppler later this year.

As a family of five—Kathryn, Shannon and our three children Ella (age 11), Sophie (age 9) and Daniel (age 8)—we agreed one sweltering summer night that a year in Canada sounded adventurous and slightly cooler! So, we decided to take advantage of the teacher exchange program—essentially swapping our job, home and cars for 12 months. Upon reading Andrew and Mara’s application and getting a sense of life in Port Sydney, Muskoka, we knew that this was the right opportunity for us! I would be swapping my teaching role at St. Joseph’s Charlestown, Australia for Andrew’s at St. Mary’s Huntsville.

Over the course of 2018 we prepared in every way for what 2019 would bring. Exchanging our home meant upgrading appliances, a kitchen reno, and cleaning every aspect as if preparing for our home to become an Airbnb. Likewise with swapping cars—detailing, organizing to register each other’s cars, international driver’s licences, not to forget visas and the daunting reality of booking the flights! And then there was the winter clothes— shopping our first ever set of snow clothes, boots, gloves and beanies (toques).

We were slightly anxious about the Canadian winter experience. Might I add it did not disappoint. We left nearly 40 degrees Celsius weather in Australia to arrive in -5 degrees Celsius weather in Toronto with only our three suitcases in total for the year ahead. Within our first few weeks in Muskoka the weather plummeted to a whopping -40 degrees. The toughest challenge was adjusting to driving on the ‘wrong’ side of icy roads. Luckily, my friend had advised me ‘right turn tight, left turn long and driver always to the centre’. Think it through, it works! Snow equals skiing, boarding, sled riding, snowshoeing, and snowman building, not to mention snow days (school rarely, if ever, closes in Australia).

Travelling from the sunny beaches of Merewether NSW, Australia to the community of Port Sydney, Muskoka where the sign reads ‘Home of 800 nice families and 1 old grouch’ and arriving in a snow-piled wonderland, we have embraced the change of countries. Muskoka truly is stunning, from the snow-covered pine trees to the sublime summer lakes.

The Canadian community have been so welcoming and have lived up to the reputation that Canadians really are the friendliest people in the world, eh? From the many dinner invitations to exciting offers to tap maple trees, snowmobile, hike Algonquin as well as boating trips down the Muskokan and Georgian lakes including tubing, snorkelling, fishing and enjoying ‘water on the water and beer on the pier!’ We have already had invitations for Thanksgiving and Halloween, so we plan to make the most of our last few months in this beautiful part of the world, including our first white Christmas, a slight change from the summer Christmas we are used to. We have made friends for life and we look forward to them visiting us in the land down under!

Above, from left:
Ella (front) takes a snowmobile for a spin;
(From left) Daniel, Ella, Shannon and Sophie cross-country skiing at Arrowhead; and
Daniel at the Port Sydney dock (supplied)

Canada really does experience all four seasons—the amount of snow in winter is phenomenal and watching how quickly the trees become green and literally burst to life overnight in spring is something special. From the warm summer days in cottage country (despite the black fly experience! No words can explain that) and now to watching the leaves change in fall (the oranges and red are breathtaking), and we hope to experience plenty of snow before we head home as we will miss the snow!

As our time in beautiful Muskoka passes, we are discovering that despite the obvious similarities between Australian and Canadian culture, history and people, the differences are much more interesting (and fun!). Teaching students to say “G’day” by pinching their noses and watching their embarrassing attempts at Aussie slang and having them roar in surprise “Yeah, mate” when least expected. The language differences have been funny to say the least. Upon arrival I couldn’t close my car boot, so I asked my neighbour to help. He was very confused as he thought I needed help with my snow boot not the car ‘trunk’.

I have learned so much from the staff here at St. Mary’s Huntsville. I am amazed by their energy, commitment and above all else stewardship of the students and community—it reminds me of the dedication shown by the teachers at St. Joseph’s Charlestown. Teaching on the other side of the world is never going to be easy, however, it is a challenge full of opportunities to learn about yourself, meet new people and experience things that you just don’t get to do at home.

Above, clockwise from top left:
Daniel celebrating Australia day at St. Mary’s on January 26 with a tray of lamingtons, an Australian treat;
(From left) Daniel, Ella, and Sophie on the first day of school; and
St. Mary’s gave Kathryn (Mrs. Hill) a warm welcome (supplied)

As a family of five, it has been amazing to see how close we have all become. My three children have embraced all things Canadian, from their love of maple syrup, to their new-found skills of skiing, canoeing, ice hockey and schoolyard games called gaga ball and four square.

During our time in Canada we have managed to travel extensively from Ontario, including experiencing Niagara Falls, absorbing the French culture of Quebec, to the Rocky Mountains and the east coast of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. We have also travelled around many parts of the US from LA, San Francisco, Las Vegas, New York, Washington, Boston and more. We will be meeting our exchange family in Vancouver just after Christmas before heading home to our Aussie life.

Above, clockwise from top left:
(Clockwise from back left) Kathryn, Shannon, Ella, Daniel and Sophie at New York’s Statue of Liberty;
Sophie with a bear sign in Canmore, Alberta;
(From left) Daniel, Ella, and Sophie at Fairmont Le Château Frontenac in Quebec City;
Daniel and Shannon at a Parrsborro, Nova Scotia Airbnb with views of the Bay of Fundy; and
(From left) Sophie, Ella, and Daniel at Moraine Lake, Alberta (supplied)

I am amazed at how patriotic Canadians are, with homes proudly flying the Canadian flag, the national anthem ‘O Canada’ sung daily at school as opposed to weekly in Australia, not to mention the amount of Canadian and Muskoka-branded clothing! It is a beautiful take-away of this year and we will certainly be stocking up on Muskoka Bear Wear before heading home!

We have been fortunate to have deer in our backyard, see moose and incredibly see a black bear cub up close on the side of the road. The chipmunks and squirrels are in abundance here too. The Hallman/Foxcroft family are yet to see a shark (thankfully!) but they have seen many koalas, kangaroos and even a dingo or two.

Above, from left:
Daniel and Ella with a deer in the family’s Port Sydney backyard;
Sophie was excited to see a moose; and
The Hills feel lucky to have seen a bear at roadside (supplied)

I am forever grateful to our amazing Canadian exchange partners, the Hallman/Foxcroft family who have made this such a dream, my principal and colleagues in Australia for supporting me in this opportunity, and finally to Google Maps for guiding us across two countries with minimal wrong turns and very few near head-on collisions with my husband at the wheel! Canada will always have a special place in our hearts, we will continue to finish our sentences with ‘eh?’ to remind us of our time in Muskoka as well as celebrating Canada Day each year with a breakfast of pancakes and maple syrup, butter tarts and poutine for dinner. Muskoka will always be our second home!

Read part one in this series, the Hallman/Foxcroft family’s perspective on their exchange in Australia, here: Teacher exchange takes local family Down Under for a year. Watch for part three, the story of the two families meeting in Vancouver at the end of the exchange, later this year.

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2 Comments

  1. What a great article. I didn’t know about this exchange program before. So happy to hear how much you’ve enjoyed our wonderful country and people.

    I regret that we haven’t met your family yet! Before you get away come and visit us at Muskoka Community Church at 10:30 am any Sunday morning. We are located in Port Sydney at 126 Greer Road. We have a reputation of being very friendly. Would love to meet you. Thanks for sharing.

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