COLUMBIA - A year ago, David Wilkins was getting ready for his new job as U.S. ambassador to Canada, packing for cold weather and heading into a long-standing lumber dispute that has dogged diplomats for more than a decade.
Mr. Wilkins, a top donor for President Bush and 11-year veteran as speaker of South Carolina's House of Representatives, knew little about his nation's largest trading partner, its people or pastimes or the issues the two countries faced. And the Republican conservative was arriving in a nation where liberal is a party, not an epithet.
A year later, Mr. Wilkins says the lumber deal is done. And he has a growing affection for Canadians and a reputation for giving as much guff as he gets from Canadian politicians. It helps that there is a new Conservative prime minister the Bush administration finds more to its liking.
"It is an interesting time," Mr. Wilkins said. "There is definitely more of a feeling of cooperation - a spirit of cooperation" - and "shared responsibility" for resolving problems. "It's a great time to be there."
It wasn't so great late last year, when then-Prime Minister Paul Martin was criticizing the United States for dragging its heels on lowering tariffs on softwood lumber that Mr. Martin said cost Canadian companies billions. Mr. Martin also criticized the U.S. for refusing to sign a global warming treaty.
Mr. Wilkins took a hard line. Without singling him out, Mr. Wilkins said in October that it wasn't "lost on any of us that you're in an election-year mode right now."
Two months later, Mr. Wilkins said political chest thumping was "a slippery slope, and all of us should hope that it doesn't have a long-term impact on the relationship," adding that the United States was not an issue on Canada's ballot.
Now with the Conservative Party's Prime Minister Stephen Harper in office, "the problems have pretty much vanished" and Mr. Wilkins is "on much firmer ground," said Stephen Clarkson, a professor of political economy at the University of Toronto.
Although some criticized Mr. Wilkins' rise to the ambassadorship through politics rather than a diplomatic career, Mr. Clarkson says it can be better to have someone in the job with close ties to a president. It is "more likely he or she would get access to the White House when it is needed," Mr. Clarkson said.
Mr. Wilkins said he spends nearly half the time on the road, giving up to five speeches a week. "You're basically the face and voice of the United States in Canada," he said.
He says he has traveled more than 100,000 miles by air and spent time in every Canadian province and territory. He toured a diamond mine in Yellow Knife and petted a polar bear on the Hudson Bay.
"It was heavily sedated at the time," he said.
"We've listened a lot and we've learned a lot," he said.
In Vancouver, he greeted 44 members of a rescue squad returning from saving people in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
"They were dirty, they were tired, they were hungry, they were sunburned," after pulling 119 Americans from rooftops and trees, Mr. Wilkins said. "It was incredibly emotional. They were crying, I was crying. They were thanking me, I was thanking them."
Times like that show "the strength and the magnitude of this relationship that we have. The bottom line is when the chips are down, we help each other," Mr. Wilkins said.
He also has embraced Canadian culture - wearing an Ottawa Senators jersey at a hockey game, eating beaver tail pastry and hugging Ice Hog Mama, mascot of Ottawa's Winterlude festival.
He has "built a lot of visibility for himself," said Micheal Kelly, dean of the University of Ottawa's School of Management. And he's won "a lot of support of the business community in particular."
Given that the U.S. and Canada trade $1.4 billion a day - the largest trade relationship the world has ever known - it is really surprising the counties don't have more issues, Mr. Wilkins said.
With the softwood lumber issue nearly resolved, diplomats have turned toward concerns about tougher passport and identification requirements that the U.S. wants to impose on Canadians and other crossing the borders. Some estimates say the secure identification cards sought will cost more than $20. That requirement has been delayed until 2009, Mr. Wilkins said, and the costs are far from fixed. "It is a work in progress. That has not been finalized," he said.
And he still hasn't picked up fluency in French.
"I've been taking some French lessons. They have not taken to me very well," he said. "I try to throw in a French line every now and then. I certainly am not able to give a speech in French."