Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Quito -- The Capital of So Much

Arriving in Quito at midnight, I arranged for a pick-up at the airport for an extra $5.00, given that I am travelling sola this time. Ah, South America! I am so thrilled to be back, this time to explore Ecuador. Landing at the airport at once felt so familiar yet not. Discoveries and experiences were spread out before me, from the superb Andes to the cloud forests to the Pacific Coast to the Amazon. Hola Ecuador!

Quito is spectacularly located high in the Andes at 2,850m. The airport is a 40 minute cab ride from El Centro, the area of Quito I chose to stay in (this area is referred to as "the old town" by travellers.) It is the colonial part of the city containing fine architecture celebrated in the government buildings, numerous churches and cultural centres. And, as in other well designed cities, there is a grand square in the centre where people congregate, families eat ice cream together, flowers bloom, street merchants sell their wares and you can get your shoes shinned.

In addition to the many fascinating museums and cultural centres to visit, Quito offers a unique sky tram (the teleférico) that zips you up to 4,100m for a spectacular view of the city's mountainous landscape -- if you catch a clear day, that is. I arrived to cloud cover, as I was told I would, but cared not for I was at the top of Cruz Loma.

On a Monday, I happened upon the weekly changing of the guard at the Palacio del Gobierno. It was quite the spectacle complete with a marching band, guards on beautifully decorated horses, and rows of seated school children decked out in their crisp uniforms as part of the ceremony. The president, Rafael Correa, together with the vice-president, Jorge Moreno, presided over the crowds of office workers stepping out for the occasion, residents, school children and tourists alike. My heart swooned hearing the Ecuadorians sing their rousing national anthem.
The president, Rafael Correa, and the vice-president, Jorge Moreno, waved to the crowd gathered in the Plaza Grande. The flag was raised as part of the ceremony.









Nothing drab about the ceremonial dress of the guards and horses alike.
As one would gather, Quito is one of the main transportation hubs, with many flights around the country passing through it. Quito also has two bus stations, one at the north and one at the south, each serving the respective parts of the country. To travel to Mindo, next up on my meanderings, I needed to go to the northern bus station. No problem, I thought, I will take a cab. (Cabs are inexpensive, although I did not need to take many because of where my accommodation, Hostal Minka, was located.) When I flagged down the only female cab driver I had seen, she told me that, no, I did not want to take a cab because it would be too expensive. Take the bus, she said, as she gestured "that way." So off I went "that way" and after more directions from police officers (of which there are many patrolling the streets), I found myself standing on a bus platform ready for my 25 cent ride. You go far for your money on a bus! I do truly love taking local buses because you see so much of the place and get to take in citizens' regular day -- and be part of it. With seven minutes to spare, I boarded the bus for Mindo. I did not know then that I would be so enchanted by this town in the cloud forest.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Wrapping up an amazing year of travel

Last March I reached a personal milestone: I have been to all 10 Canadian provinces and 3 Northern territories at least once. Business trips have helped immensely, especially to get to Canada's North.

Here's a quick accounting for 2014. Leisure trips with Jan took us to:
  • Cabo San Lucas, Mexico for a perfect yoga retreat with our local studio
  • Yukon for hiking, camping, arts and culture and visiting friends this summer
  • Adirondack Mountains in New York for further High Peaks bagging
  • Toronto, ON to see friends 
On the business side, I added considerable mileage with trips to:
  • New York, NY
  • Boston, MA
  • Phoenix, AZ
  • St. John's, NL (twice!)
  • Charlottetown, PEI
  • Halifax, NS
  • Haliburton, ON (twice, too)
  • Midland, ON
  • London, ON
  • Toronto, ON
  • Portage La Prairie, MB
  • Whitehorse, YT
  • Iqaluit, NU
I traveled about 70,000 km which is more than any other year so far. Put another way it is close to twice the circumference of our home, Earth.

For 2015, a few trips are already confirmed including a return to Halifax and a first trip to Regina, SK for conferences. Jan and I are looking at a return to see friends in the Yukon and to keep exploring its wild places, perhaps combined with a first foray into Alaska. And it is time for a trip to Germany to see family and friends again, even though perhaps it will have to wait until early 2016 - we'll see. 

Meanwhile, Jan will kick of 2015 in amazing style with a few weeks to explore Ecuador from the Andes to its coast. Look for her blog posts right here as her adventures unfold!

Ah, so many places to go next!

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Lesser 46ers deliver big

Gil brook near Indian Head 
We headed back country in the Adirondack High Peaks for the Labour Day weekend to enjoy the essential life of the outdoors for a few days.

It was a stellar weekend.

A lovely and very large camp site just for us.
The drive down on Saturday was fast, as I didn't need to stop in at US Immigration due to my still valid I-94. We left our car in a spot at the 73 at St. Huberts hiker parking that had just become available - sometimes, on one of the busies hiking weekends, it pays to arrive relatively late in the day. From there access to the back country runs through the private Adirondack Mountain Reserve - Ausable Club (A short history - driven by conservation). Mandatory trail head registration featured the Club's security person quizzing us on our overnight plans, whether we had bear barrels and so on. Satisfied that we were well equipped for 3 days he wished us a fine trip.

Inga on a cloudy Colvin summit.
After about an hour we left the private Lake Road, and within 30 minutes we located a designated camp site near Indian Head. Arriving much faster than expected, we decided to set up camp and then work up a proper appetite. As the trail became noticeably steeper that worked very well. By 6:30 pm we were set up by the brook to heat up dinner. An hour later dusk began to rapidly turn to dark.

The rain arrived on cue overnight. We lucked into a dry spell for breakfast and then headed out on the trail to Mt Colvin and Blake. These are two of the lesser 46ers. In fact, Blake is a historic artifact, since it is not quite 4,000' in height. (These two are 4,057' and 3,980' respectively.) However, the 46ers years ago decided to not alter the historic list just because newer surveys recalibrated heights a little better.

Hiking out on a super beautiful, sunny day.
Still life of boots drying and gear awaiting packing.
Summit-wise, neither offered us much: Colvin was engulfed in clouds and Blake is in the trees. Hiking-wise, we enjoyed the usual Adirondack wilderness challenges of steep, rocky and wet terrain that requires the hiker's constant attention and vigilance. One hallmarks of the remarkable technical hiking here is that the descent often takes as long as the ascent did; this 7-mile return took us about 7 hours through rain and clouds and mud. We met just 5 other people in 2 groups all day: When the weather forecast is for adverse weather, the back country-exploring population drops dramatically. This usually feels like a bonus; at least as long as the weather is "bad within reason".

By the time we settled back at camp to make dinner, the rain had subsided and we enjoyed a well deserved meal by our own private brook.

On Sunday, we had a leisurely morning followed by a quick hike out and a drive to Chapel Pond, the best High Peaks swimming hole. The it was off to The Cottage in Lake Placid for a late lunch, a bit of shopping and a beautiful drive home.
Best patio in Lake Placid! The Cottage at Mirror Lake. 

In recent years, wilderness has taken an ever greater place in my world. These days, it is the  perhaps mythical place where we can still roam freely that makes most sense to me. Living in a city, even one as splendid and close to the outdoors as Ottawa, has me feeling wistful for the essentialness, the self-reliance of the unpaved.

It's great to have the Adirondack wilderness close by and to have mountain excursions and wild places on my mind for the next adventure.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Fording Bullion Creek (video)

We don't usually cross creeks like this in the Eastern part of the country. So it was exciting to feel the power of the water tugging at our legs as we dealt with the largest obstacle on Slim's River West trail. Enjoy.

video

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Slim's River West, Kluane National Park


Happy: Jan. 
The last substantial hike of this Yukon trip took us to Kluane National Park, located a couple of hours from Whitehorse in the Southwest corner of the Territory. We opted for a relatively simple trail along Slim's River West/Ä’äy Chù West, which is entirely located inside the Park. The 22.5 km long trail features a wide variety of mountain features, alluvial fans, brush, sand dunes and creek crossing. The crossing of Bullion Creek made us stop and think. These glacial waters run fast, cold and quite high. Wading through such waters has not been part of our regular outings, so we were happy to have paid attention at the briefing with Parks staff.

Beautiful mountains, river and valley.
We also had been told that this trail has frequent bear activity. Around km 16 as expected we spotted a grizzly heading across the slope toward some tasty berry bushes. As we hiked hugging the river rather than the mountain slope, we decided to proceed and kept an eye on the bear until it disappeared into the bushes. A few minutes later, we saw him stand up on his hind legs, look at us and sniff - he had noticed us by the river as we were now perpendicular to him and he might have heard us finally as we moved up-wind - then turn and run off. Clearly this adult had better things to do than be near a couple of hikers.
See the grizzly? 

We continued on our way, happy and content that this would be a bear observation rather than an encounter. We made it to the camping area at Canada Creek in just under 8 hours. Like in Tombstone I was a little under-fueled in the last hour or so of the hike - which also happened to be the part of the trail with some steep ups and downs, even though they are not that sustained - and ended up hauling out the last piece of tastiest salami EVER from my bear canister. I needed that!
The many parts of Canada Creek heading into Slim's River.
We set up camp in the open area by one of the
Our tent fit the vast landscape well.
many arms of Canada Creek. Four other tents were there belonging to three separate groups. One group was hanging out at camp. Two other pairs were still out at Observation Mountain. We met up with each later in the evening to hear about their fairly epic 10-, 11-hour days of route finding, impressive creek crossings, awesome views and generally exhilarating hiking. One had gone fast and light, the other carried overnight gear just in case. All were elated.

Glaciers above the toe of Kaskawulsh glacier.
We decided that if we were to head up Observation Mountain, we would want to get an early start so we could avoid the very high water crossings both of them described. As it turned out, sleeping in was the order of the next day and we spent a few hours exploring the Canada Creek area below Observation Mountain toward the Kaskawulsh glacier.

In the afternoon we met up with three new arrivals at camp. They had had a whole different kind of encounter with two juvenile grizzlies over about four hours and were ready to relax and take it easy. We decided to hike out together the next day, as there is considerable safety in numbers. We enjoyed campfire chats with Colleen, Tom and Danielle. As it turned out Colleen and I had met before through my work in the performing arts! It was surreal and fun when we both realized that we were having a quintessential"small world" moment in the Yukon wilderness.

This is what wind looks like.
Foot of Observation Mountain.
The hike out the next day was uneventful, despite the occasional route finding challenge along sections of the high trail. Jan showed us all the perfect spot for crossing back over Bullion Creek and we said our good byes that evening at the trail head. We drove to Haines Junction where we camped at Pine Lake, after enjoying a well-earned meal at Frosty's. The next morning, we headed for breakfast and then to the Da Ku Cultural Centre. Then we returned to our Whitehorse "base camper" to see our dear friend Michele, her sons and the dogs for an awesome weekend of memorable meals, meeting lovely dinner guests, beautiful Okanagan wine and fruit, walking with the dogs, and all manner of stories and music.
I made fire ... which was easy to do with the tinder-dry wood
and constant wind.

This was our last weekend. I found leaving hard. Both the unique geography of this place and an indelible sense of an expanded family have been imprinted on my soul. I think it may be the closest to home I have ever felt.


Sunday, August 10, 2014

9 hours in Dawson City

Our Tombstone hike out delivered us to our SUV around 10 pm with the sun high in the Northern sky. After high fives and trail head selfies, we headed to Dawson City. We knew that the Dawson City Music Festival was on that weekend, which likely meant little chance of vacancies or camping. But 5 days of oatmeal, an assortment of trail bars and re-hydrated vegetarian dinners had me craving meat protein, so off we went.
The entertainment.

We arrived in Dawson around 11:30 at night and quickly learned the only place to eat was Diamond-Tooth Gerties Gambling Hall. We giddily entered an alternate reality in "Canada's first casino" complete with the midnight show, gamblers seeking fun and fortune, plenty of drinking and, yes, a late-night kitchen. Jan bought us beers, I got myself a cheeseburger with a side salad ('cause that was the more healthful option) and Jan had veggie pizza. After the show I had another cheese burger and another pint. I was happy.

By 1:30 in the morning we needed to sleep. We pulled into an RV / camping spot, parked in a quiet corner and slept for a few hours in the SUV. We left before the office opened (we would have happily self-registered but there was no such option) and headed to the Eldorado hotel for an early breakfast. I consumed all manner of protein to last me until dinner in Whitehorse.

Before embarking on the 500 km trip back to our "base camper" in Whitehorse, a hot shower, a brief catch-up visit with a friend and a lovely dinner at Burnt Toast (yeah to locally made Elk and Blueberry sausage), we took a few photos around Dawson to remind ourselves why we'd want to come back to spend some quality time that includes day-time hours. (Click on pic to enlarge.)

Every town needs a theatre!

Open every Friday noon to 5 pm.


"Romance Capital of the Yukon"

How to maintain that historic Gold Rush feeling.





Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Tombstone's flora

Among the formidable aspects of Tombstone's beautiful tarns, soaring cirques, ragged mountains and wild moraines is its multitude of vegetation. While much of it is tiny, it is amazingly resilient: after all much of this land is alpine tundra. Following are a few close up impressions. I checked on names in The Boreal Herbal by Beverly Gray (Great to meet and chat with Bev at the camp fire in Atlin!) ... If by chance you know these plants or their uses, leave a comment and I will update accordingly. Other than that simply enjoy the minuscule majesty of these plants!
(I took all of these pics at Divide Lake. Click to enlarge.)
Nature's rock art.
Geoblock appears just like square foot gardening.
1:

2: Labrador Tea (use leaves and flowers)

3: Arnica (heart-leaf)

4: Arctic Cotton

5: 

6: 

7: Lungwort (use leaves)

8: River beauty (use leaves and flowers)


Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Tombstone Territorial Park shrouded in magic

We spent 4 days back country hiking in Tombstone Territorial Park. A magical place deserving of much more of our time! (Click on pics to enlarge.)
Marmot Meadow featured marmots, pikas and
ground squirrels, but no bears.

The 7-hour drive from Whitehorse is scenic, of course, and the first 10% of the Dempster Highway we drove were in great shape even though it is unpaved.

We booked the Grizzly, Divide and Talus Lakes campsites - the only 'developed' sites in the Park - complete with 10' x 10' tent platforms, cooking shelter, outhouse and even grey water barrels. When visiting this well-established loop, booking is necessary. Other than that, trekkers can hike and camp anywhere; the message that this is remote wilderness where people are expected to be self-sufficient is unambiguously communicated.
Ground level clouds roll in at Grizzly Lake.

The first night we camped close to the Visitors Centre awed by the beauty of these mountains already. The next morning we got our back country permits, a briefing on what to expect and off we went. As we hiked up Grizzly Ridge the rain started to move in. Still, we enjoyed the varied mountain terrain and reached Grizzly Lake in just under 6 hours. There was no-one else until another couple appeared later in the evening.


Jan descends Glissade Pass. Fun boot skiing.


Our new ultra-light tent (Big Agnes) would got its first wet weather test. Happily it stayed dry, kept us warm and we discovered that the fly sheds water so that it's not even wet when packing it despite some heavy rain.

The next day, we set off to Talus Lake via Divide. This meant crossing Glissade Pass with its 1,400 feet elevation. We had been told that it can be arduous especially when carrying weight. Alas, we were prepared for this terrain.  Even the rain held off for some of the hiking; it resumed as we finished putting up the tent at Talus. It was amazing to have the whole valley to ourselves.

Talus Lake was dramatic and our tent was perfect!
There will be a break in the weather!
On our third day in the back country, rain had been with us every day: the clouds revealed and obscured these rugged and ragged mountains creating ever-changing moods of light and dark; a feeling of a landscape shrouded in old stories and ancient spirits. We had been walking all alone among them.

That evening we went to Divide Lake - a short 2-hour hike. As the weather improved we met a few people: four Germans including two lone hikers and a couple of Canadians. The most impressive itinerary belonged to Andreas from Stuttgart: a 3-week self-supported trek throughout the Park. His gear was remarkable: from a tent weighing 350 grams to carrying Pemmican, nature bars and dried fruit to eat, so there was no need to carry any cooking equipment at all. That is a kind of wilderness experience to which I can merely aspire! (I think we could manage a good week given our much lighter equipment now.)

The next day we set out on the long trek back to 'the other world.'

The clouds lifted in the morning and we enjoyed ever-changing light, stupendous views of ridges, rocks and mountain tops for our 9.5 hour hike out. Glorious. And leaving us wanting so much more.


Divide Lake turns mirror-like
as we arrive for the night.
Overlooking Grizzly Lake and seeing the surrounding
mountain tops on our hike out.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Photo essay: Yukon Wildlife Preserve

Woodland caribou
This 700-acre preserve features large Northern animals that can be difficult to see otherwise. We spent a few hours walking the trails and taking pictures. We finished this outing by heading to the end of the road to the Takhini Hot Springs for a drink and a snack. Then we drove back to our friend's place in Whitehorse to eat, drink and be merry (no doubt!)

With that a few close ups of great Northern animals! (Click to see larger)

Spot the Canada lynx cubs!
Dall sheep on mountain side
Musk ox

Wood bison
Thinhorn sheep
Elk
Birds

Arctic ground squirrel
Mule deer

Arctic fox