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Walks by Big Alex’s Pond

Henry Van Berkel invites everyone to drop by People’s Place Library in Antigonish on Wednesday, Jan. 22, from 2 to 4 p.m., for the launch and signing of his recently-released book Walks by Big Alex’s Pond. Corey LeBlanc
Henry Van Berkel invites everyone to drop by People’s Place Library in Antigonish on Wednesday, Jan. 22, from 2 to 4 p.m., for the launch and signing of his recently-released book Walks by Big Alex’s Pond. Corey LeBlanc - Corey LeBlanc

Henry Van Berkel of Ashdale pens first book

ASHDALE, N.S. —

ASHDALE - First-time author Henry Van Berkel said there are a variety of reasons why he decided to put pen to paper.     
“I have a lot of opinions and I am very passionate about some issues,” he said, with a laugh.     
The retired educator and financial planner, who grew up on the family farm in West River, Antigonish County, recently released Walks by Big Alex’s Pond.     
“I wanted to share more of my family story,” Van Berkel, who was born in 1943 in the Netherlands, said.     
He writes about their immigration story, including his parents’ time living under Nazi occupation.     
“There were many emotional moments,” Van Berkel said of reflecting on that part of his family history.     
While flipping through the pages of his book, he came across the sketch of the barn burning on their farm in 1953.     
“It was our livelihood,” Van Berkel said of the loss, the vividness of that moment apparent more than 60 years later.     
The eclectic mix of “musings,” as he described them, are products of his strolls around Big Alex’s Pond on their property where he and his wife, Elaine, operate a woodlot, which was once partly-owned by the ‘Black Bill’ MacDonald family.     
“It is a fascinating story,” Van Berkel said, in touching on another reason he wanted to write the book – the life and times of ‘Big Alex’ MacDonald.     
Born in Ashdale, he moved to Dawson City, Yukon in the 1880s, where he amassed great wealth – almost overnight – and etched his place in Canadian history, where he is known as ‘The Klondike King.’     
“It has always interested me,” Van Berkel said of MacDonald and his story.     
He noted he first learned about him in high school from teacher Sister Sarah MacPherson.     
Although there have been authors who have mentioned MacDonald in their work, Van Berkel said he is interested in the possibility of “sharing more of his story” in a future book.     
Walks by Big Alex’s Pond also includes thoughts about his time as an educator; he spent more than 33 years, both as a teacher and administrator, in Alberta and Nova Scotia.     
“It was quite a different process,” Van Berkel said, noting he made the uncommon move of going back-and-forth from the classroom to the administration office.     
He also reflects on his time with the Strait Regional School Board, including as chairman.     
“It was a dramatic decision,” Van Berkel said of his request of the then provincial education minister to dissolve the elected board.     
He also talks about “going down the road,” and his move to Toronto; leaving home common at the time for many from this part of the country.     
“There were some interesting situations,” he said, with a laugh, of his time in Canada’s largest city.     
For that reason, he used several pseudonyms, rather than identifying some of the characters in those stories.     
There are also “tidbits” from his time in the political arena, including his two-year term on the national council of the then Reform Party under leader Preston Manning.     
Van Berkel also wanted to include some of the interactions with his longtime neighbour Bill Cameron, someone noted for his “tremendous sense of humour.”     
“He is a very interesting character,” he said.     
Van Berkel said his walks by Big Alex’s Pond – he gave the body of water that name – and the surrounding rural roads include memorable experiences with the “flora and fauna.”     
“Over the years, I have developed a genuine concern for animals,” he added.     
Calling himself a “typical Maritimer,” Van Berkel said he used the appendix of the book to remember growing up in West River.     
“How wholesome, how innocent we were,” he offered.     
There was no technology; things were so different.     
“There was such a sense of neighbourhood,” Van Berkel said.     
He noted he also took the opportunity to “philosophize” in the book.     
“There is such importance to our history and learning from it,” Van Berkel said, noting he considers himself “an amateur historian.” 
As for what he hopes readers take from the book, Van Berkel said “an increased appreciation of nature.”     
“I also have tried to reinforce an appreciation for veterans,” he added.     
And, more broadly, Van Berkel hopes to foster an appreciation of “all life,” along with the importance of friends, family and neighbours.     “And, of course, God the creator,” he added.     
Van Berkel said he was “elated” when he saw the finished copy of his book for the first time.     
“It was quite a process, but it was worth it,” he added.
There will be a launch and book signing for Walks by Big Alex's Pond at People’s Place Library in Antigonish on Wednesday, Jan. 22, from 2 to 4 p.m.

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