Monday, July 28, 2014

Bolivia story featured in Alpine Club's magazine

The Alpine Club of Canada's magazine  features an article about our experience last September in Bolivia's Cordillera Real with a focus on the progress of opening up the Chachacomani area to easier access through community collaboration.
And, yes, that is us gracing the cover :)

Friday, June 27, 2014

1 week to take off

In a week we are heading North to Whitehorse and to explore the Yukon's amazing landscapes, people and cultures.

We're just about ready:

  • Air North tickets are booked
  • truck rental is booked (well, we left that a little late, so there were no cars or SUV left - lesson learned!)
  • our satellite phone loaner from Iridium - the rugged 9555 - has arrived and I've started putting in important phone numbers just in case
  • gear testing is complete - love the new super-light Big Agnes tent
  • our lovely Whitehorse host has been so helpful and we are stoked to spend quality time
  • we have our house sitters briefed on all things house so they are comfortable while staying here
I have just a few small things to update, like my trekking poles, get a few more light hiking socks and decide which few pieces of trekking clothes to bring to maximize on layering and be ready for cold nights while optimizing weight to performance ratio.

The only booking we'll do is camp sites in Tombstone. While we could camp anywhere in the park, there is a 3 lake circuit that looks amazing and as such there's a limited number of campers allowed which in turn requires booking in advance.

While I have been to Whitehorse once before, and have managed through work to touch down in all three territories in the last 3 years, it will be Jan's first time up North.

Meanwhile, an article I wrote about our recent mountaineering excursion to Bolivia and specifically the opening up of new climbing access in the Cordillera Real's rarely visited Chachacomani area will be published in the July issue of the Alpine Club of Canada's Gazette.

Monday, June 16, 2014

A Giant - Esther weekend

Actually Esther at 9.4 miles (15.2 km) return was a longer hiking day than Giant's 6 miles (9.7 km). Especially the way we did it this weekend: for Esther, we parked at the Reservoir which adds 2.6 miles to the return trip. Esther is the kind of herd path that is impossible to lose, and best of all, it follows the ridge with just small up and downs to get to the summit once we turned off the main trail to Whiteface.
Inga posing on Esther's summit. The clouds were thick,
there was a little bit of sleet, views non-existent, but that
was all  secondary to making it up in the first place.
The trail was very wet, with muddy puddles on flatter parts and running water most everywhere else. The picture below doesn't quite do that part justice. In any case, we did our best to walk right through it all and not make new detours that further erosion. Happy to wear my backpacking boots, which are water proof. Even though I never bothered putting on gaiters, the wet stayed out despite "testing" a few rather deep.

This 6.5 hour excursion, featuring over 3,000 feet of elevation difference, I did with a 40 lb backpack - for training purposes; made the gluteal muscles take note as well as the knees, while merely 'massaging' the feet and ankles.
Summit plaque commemorating Esther McComb's first
ascent in 1839 at 15 years old. Just for the joy of it.
After another easy camping night at the ACC Montreal's Keene Farm property - this spot is like a home away from home having spent many nights both in the hut and camping - we embarked on the shortest route up Giant.

Jan provides gorgeous scale on open ridge
below Giant's summit.
This is a very pretty and varied hike, passing 2 mountain-side lakes (Giant Washbowl is aptly named), and rising steadily by over 3,000 feet almost right from the roadside parking area near Chapel Pond. The sunny weather made us appreciate the alternating shady wooded sections and wide open ridges with gorgeous sweeping views. The summit affords beautiful views of the Dix Range and over to the Great Range. We took 2:30 hours up and 2:10 down - with much lighter packs. Well, Jan could certainly do this faster, so I always go first to set the pace :)
View from Giant's summit across into
the Dix and Great Range.

Esther is our 19th 46er. Giant was our first in 2007 just ahead of our trip to Argentina and our first foray into the higher altitudes with a trek to Aconcagua's Plaza de Mulas. That feels like such a long time ago considering our varied trekking and mountaineering ventures covering much mountainous ground in North and South America and even a challenging foray along Germany's Rhine river. Still the Adirondack's High Peaks are our best training and proving grounds, where miles and miles of steep, technically demanding climbs - usually more difficult than anything we've encountered on most other routes - help us get trail fit for our further afield adventures.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Algonquin Park

We spent the May long weekend in Ontario's Algonquin Park (of Group of Seven fame), because the Forest Rangers in the Adirondack High Peaks asked hikers to stay below 3,000 feet until the ground was dryer. As we are preparing for our 3-week jaunt to the Yukon this July, we wanted to test our brand new, super light Big Agnes tent (1.6 kg total down from about 4!); give our gear a good test run and do some long hiking with (reasonably) heavy backpacks.

We had hoped to do the full Highland loop, alas all back country sites were already booked (hard to get last minute bookings in Algonquin), so we settled in at the Lakes of Two River campground. Then we day hiked the larger 19 km loop around Provoking Lake. (Check out Jeff's awesome map of the Park!).

The next day we did a series of the short hikes all along highway 60 as we slowly headed toward Ottawa.

All in all, a successful weekend.

Jan overlooking one of many lakes.

Algonquin is gorgeous, even as it is much flatter than the High Peaks
it does present some fine challenges back country.

This warning is for tourists, the kind that wear flip flops
and bring no water or food along.  

In May signs of spring were just starting to come through.

Exuberant first flowers.

Great day hiking - in total we took about 6.5 hours for the 19 k

See the woodpecker pecking? 

We did stop in Eganville's Schnitzel Haus
on the way back to Ottawa for this fine meal.

Monday, April 28, 2014

The Yukon is calling

I am happiest outside. And second happiest when planning one of our outside trips: Jan and I are going to the Yukon this summer. We've got our Air North flight passes and as soon as Jan's vacation is approved we will book the actual dates.

The plan is to be there for 3 weeks. We'll be staying at a friend's place near Whitehorse. That will serve as a bit of a base camp to go spend quality hiking time around Whitehorse, in Tombstone Territorial Park, Kluane National Park as well as around Carcross in the most southern area. We'll get out on some fast-moving rivers and perhaps gear up on mountain bikes, too. The Dawson City Music Festival and Atlin Arts and Music Festival are happening while we are up there, so we are planning on going to both. Bonus: it sounds like we will see some familiar faces at both festivals :)

Through my work I have been fortunate to visit all three territories in the last three years and to make new friends in the North. Now I am so excited about Jan coming North for the first time! This will be so awesome.

We are getting the training underway now with our usual back country excursions into the Adirondack wilderness and some weekly urban hiking - the point of which is to get used to carrying our 70-litre backpacks again. I am also looking at getting a lighter, yet larger, tent and we'll be making sure our camping kitchen is in good shape.

All to say, this could be an epic few weeks: 19 hours of daylight and the rest simply twilight, an awesome trekking itinerary punctuated by weekend music festivals in tiny places. The Yukon is calling out -- loudly.

Highway 1 heading toward the mountains (October 2011)

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Iqaluit leaves lasting impressions

Modern transports for a Northern life.
At the end of March I had the pleasure of spending a week in Iqaluit, Nunavut working with a local arts festival. That trip concluded one of my most intense 3 months travel schedules covering about 25,000 km and spanning from Baja Caifornia to New York, to St. John's NL and then Iqaluit.

I had never been to Nunavut - it is an expensive place to get to let alone travel in. For years, we have contemplated trekking on Baffin Island, so I was happy to have this opportunity for a first look through work. I did manage to make the most of my free time - visiting the local museum, the visitor centre, a drive out to Sylvia Grinnell Territorial Park, meeting local artists in their studio, having a friend drive me around the whole town covering all the available roads. I even had dinner on the Road to Nowhere.

While I was there the #sealfie campaign was just taking off in defense of traditional seal hunting. It quickly morphed into raising awareness of Inuit culture, issues of cultural survival - and even more basic: survival - and what living on the land (mostly frozen land) means. The campaign also showed why Canadian seal hunting is not so easily divisive into commercial hunting and traditional hunting; in following this grassroots campaign, artist-led as it is, and listening to Inuit and Northern perspectives I feel I understand more.

(BTW, personally, I have no trouble with hunting for food and clothing. I eat meats and fish of various sorts and often eat the local fare when I travel, from llama jerky to alpaca steak to guanaco fillets, and  most recently in Iqaluit from caribou to muskox to whale.)
Semi-frozen whale skin and tiny bits of blubber and Ulu knife.
Served with soy sauce

That is what I love about travelling: getting to know landscapes - really being in them - learning how to inhabit them and meeting the local people. It is usually not terribly romantic to learn about living close to the land. Having grown up on a family farm, I know about food production and the ethics involved. I also feel that city dwellers have become disconnected from where food and clothes come from. I wish there was less judgment and more listening and seeking to understand.

With that a few impressions of the arctic landscapes around Iqaluit:
Iqaluit and the frozen Frobisher Bay

Sylvia Grinnell Territorial Park
This landscape makes
me want to  hike
Frozen river in Sylvia Grinnell Territorial Park
In Apex on the beach.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Prana del Mar perfect for Yogatown retreat

Talking Trails is usually focused on self-propelled travel, the landscapes we explore, the people we meet, the cultures we learn about. [On self-propelled travel: At present I fly to far-flung places, yet I dream of getting to them on foot under my own steam ... how long does it take to walk/bike/boat to Patagonia I wonder?]

The yoga retreat we were just on does merit a little diversion - not exactly to the interior life, but rather 'off-trail'. This post is about Prana del Mar and the amazing experience Yogatown here in Ottawa created for us there. (To view images larger, just click on them.)
Early morning flocking. This is the largest number
of living beings I ever saw on our 2 km long beach.

My entry into expansion in thought and action, having connections in this world that are both strong and independent, comes from being outside. On mountains and in deserts, limits are at times not only redefined, but discarded; there I challenge my capacities, learn more skills, gain experience in self-sufficiency. That is where my spirit soars, where I am at my best. This retreat experience offered that by combining the leadership of a trusted Yogatown team (yeah to Paula, Tracy, Jenna and Michelle), a deepening yoga practice and the exquisite Prana del Mar in its wild Baja peninsula surroundings.
Roof top solar panels. Looking toward the entrance gate.
This garden like all else at the retreat is about
gorgeous design, details that delight.

Located in a semi-arid desert, Prana del Mar operates off-the-grid, but in truth it is simply self-sufficient: powered by solar panels and with its own water treatment. There is a wireless internet hub (via satellite), even though its downloads are limited on a daily basis. The retreat exudes a quiet luxury, with simple and beautiful design carried through in every detail and with comfortable, airy spaces everywhere.

The yoga studios are beautiful, the grounds creatively kept with little surprises appearing in the sand each day. Beach access is direct out the back gate. Most days, our group had the 2 km long beach to ourselves. There were just a few horseback riding groups and some dune buggy excursions. Swimming is not possible here due to the strength of the waves and currents, but this makes for impressive pictures ... and some fine frolicking at the edge of the surf.

There is a lovely salt water pool, hot tub, tanning area by the main building. Daily spa treatments were available with excellent reviews of Anna Maria's work.
The moon studio - great for yoga nidra ...

The chef and his kitchen crew created delicious meals each day. Unique breakfast smoothies and egg dishes (non egg options available), followed hot soups for lunch and dinners featured a variety of options from salads and vegetables to quinoa and fish. Pre-yoga fruit and coffee was always at the ready, too. Various dietary preferences, food allergies and such were easily accommodated.
New yoga ... :)
The main yoga studio with windows on all sides is infused
with the outside world.
The guest quarters from the main building's roof top. We had
the corner unit closest to the beach.

People are essential to creating the kind of perfect week we had. Our group of 23 gelled quickly and settled into a fine rhythm. Excursions and meal time conversations were filled with stories and view points. And at the heart of it all was an exquisitely led yoga practice twice daily - and our special delivery morning mail, which we all looked forward to.
Night view from our porch toward the beach.

Many staff members speak English very well. The Cabo San Lucas area at large has come to cater to American and Canadian tourists, so that we found that guides also usually spoke English, if they weren't, in fact, ex-pats themselves. This aspect is not what I would seek out: I prefer to participate in local culture and language but in the scheme of things that is a small quibble. Mexicans were surprised when I told them that I learned Spanish at UNAM. After all, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México is not only one of the most highly regarded in all of Latin America; more personally, I serve on its Advisory Board for its extension school here in Canada. In that sense, it was high time, I finally spent a few days in Mexico!

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Baja California coastal hikes and yoga

Mid-March. Warm, sunny days. Whales breach in clear view of where we enjoy a late lunch at Prana del Mar.

We came to this private resort for a week-long retreat with our local studio, Yogatown. As the resort is small our group of 23 were the only guests.

Whale watching was amazing.
Some boats did get pretty close. Whales seemed to not
mind much though.
Off-the-beaten path and entirely self-sufficiently run off-the-grid, Prana del Mar satisfied our usual desire for remote or at least out of the way. (There is not even a sign advertising its dirt road turn-off.) The resort's backyard is a 2 km long beach, followed by more beach up both sides of the coast. In contrast to the tourist-haven of Cabo San Lucas, located 25 minutes to the South, these long, gorgeous beaches see hardly any visitors at all. A few dune buggy excursions and some tourists on horseback. Mostly, though, this stretch of awesome is just used by our group.

Eric, the owner who built this retreat a few years ago, made sure that every detail was accounted for, from setting up daily excursion options (e.g. surfing, snorkeling, whale watching), to car service to get to town for those who wanted to do some shopping, to having an amazingly attentive and caring staff. In that sense, pure luxury. 

The salt water pool at Prana del Mar at night.
Along the coast there are trails leading along beaches, up onto cliffs and into the hills. We headed out on a  post-morning-yoga jaunt three beaches over on perhaps the hottest day of our stay. We had organized additional vessels for water, and took about 7 litres in total, plus sun screen, hats and I had a long sleeved top as well; that was genius. We wanted to be back for the afternoon yoga class, so we had a 5-hour window.

Obligatory sunset over the Pacific.
We headed North along our local beach, then over trails past an untouched cove, then over to an even longer, even whiter, even emptier beach. We hiked about 8 km one way, taking photos along the way, marveling at huge insects that seemingly had no purpose (we were told later that they eat tarantulas) and hydrating frequently. The sun's heat was formidable. We replenished sunscreen along the way and I was happy I could put on long sleeves after a couple of hours. Our turn around point was a beautiful rocky outcrop pounded by the rising Pacific.

Proof: I am standing on a surf board! (First time ever).
Jan got up first try out!
This hike left us wanting so much more... and it made us want to hike in the cooler hours of the day. Between the two of us, we downed about 5 litres of water and some fruit and nuts in about 4 hours of hiking. Jan in particular was happy to get out of the sun when we got back to the resort. And we did make our afternoon yoga class easily, too.

Pre-sun rise overlooking Prana del Mar from the beach.
While we undertook many activities - and especially some we had never done (snorkel, surf, sea kayak with whales) - the twice daily yoga practices were my highlight. Awesome teachers (thank you, Paula and Tracy!), lots of hands-on adjusting and body awareness raising in class, with a group that quickly gelled, all in perfect surroundings made for a perfect week. (To view photos larger, click on one)

Sunrise on the beach. Waves and currents are such
that swimming is not possible along most of the
Pacific side of the Baja peninsula.

And a few minutes later as the sky lightens bit by bit.
Looking South.
Sunrise over the mountains.
Hiking along the coast only to discover ever more beach.

Powerful Pacific pounds the coast.

One of the coves along the way. Untouched.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Balsa floats, monkeys and papagayos

Day 2 and 3 of our time at Mashaquipe eco-lodge were filled with a long walk to look for animals, a float down the river (who knew it takes only 15 minutes to put a few logs together and get floating?), monkeys and more monkeys - all with the benefit of Eber's vast knowledge and know-how. There's nothing quite like a local guide to get to know more about a place, its culture, customs and evolution.

Best to let the pictures do the talking!

Howler monkey family
Eber took this pic with our camera - he had far more steady hand than I to make up for the lack of a powerful zoom :)
Tree filled with papagayos. We didn't get any good photos of them in flight, but they did put on a great show!
Day 3 we explored the other side of the river and say many more monkeys. Amazingly, Eber seems to be seeing a path here. Anyways, we got to the rendez-vous spot with our boat at 12:59 pm and the boat showed up at 1:02 pm. Folks are pretty punctual in the jungle.
We also saw these much rarer papagayos on day 3. Pretty cool!

As for that balsa tree trunk float, that was an awesome way to send a day filled with walking, seeing, admiring and, finally, relaxing.
Eber makes our float. Balsa is a local tree, a very buoyant tree.
On our just assembled balsa float. That was such fun! And, yes, you do get a bit wet, but the water is warm so who cares.
We even saw a caiman - a very large crocodile - sunning itself on the river bank as we motored by on the way back to Rurrenabaque. Impressive and fast to get into the muddy water as we approached for a somewhat closer look.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

The place where ants live: Madidi

We learned that Madidi has an incredible diversity of ants and very many of each. We certainly saw many different kinds.

But the kind that goes and harvests leaves from trees and bring it back to massive ant hills, no... colonies with its subterranean city state, are a sight to behold. So this video is worth a look to see the path-creating action of hundreds of thousands of little tiny ant feet.

Also, look out for the lazy ones that catch a ride on a leaf ... carried by another busy ant ... too funny.