Happy Trails

The shortest distance between two points of outdoor interest is rarely a straight line, but it’s always a trail–whether it’s over water…

Buffalo Pound Nicolle Flats Nature trail
Buffalo Pound–Nicolle Flats Nature Trail
Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge trail
Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge Trail
Drumheller Valley Star Suspension Bridge trail
Drumheller Valley–Star Suspension Bridge Trail

…or mud,

Great Smokys Andrews Bald trail
Great Smoky Mountain NP–Andrews Bald Trail

…or through a tunnel…

Great Smokys Lakeshore trail (2).jpg
Great Smoky Mountains NP–Lakeshore Trail

…through a tree…

Yosemite Tuolumne Grove Nature Ttrail
Yosemite–Tuolumne Grove Trail

…or under a rock;

Sequoia Potwisha trail.jpg
Sequoia NP–Potwisha Trail
Mammoth Cave trail
Mammoth Caves-NP–Historic Trail

Whether it requires a conventional staircase…

Valley of Fire Atlatl Rock trail
Valley of Fire–Atlatl Rock Trail
Moro Rock trail
Sequoia NP–Moro Rock Trail
Eureka Springs Center St to Main St trail
Eureka Springs–Center St. to Main St. Trail

Descending Lower Antelope Canyon trail

Ascending Lower Antelope Canyon trail
Lower Antelope Canyon Trail
Kentucky Natural Bridge trail
Kentucky Natural Bridge Trail

…or integrated steps,

Arches Windows trail
Arches NP–Windows Trail

…or at times, a ramp,

Hobe Mountain Observation Tower trail
Jonathan Dickinson State Park–Hobe Mountain Trail

trails can be linear or curvey, ascending or descending.

Tower ramp
Great Smoky Mountains–Crescent Mountain Observation Tower Trail

Some trails are meant for bicycles…

Tres Rios Cenotes trail

Tres Rios Cenotes Nature Trail
Tres Rios Ecopark–Cenotes Trail
John Dickinson bicycle trail.jpg
Jonathan Dickinson State Park–EaglesView Trail

…while others are intended for boats…

Everglades Airboat trail
Everglades Holiday Park–Everglades Canal Trail

…or horseback…

Palo Duro Canyon horse trail
Palo Duro Canyon Horse Trail

…or a four wheel drive vehicle.

Canyonlands Horshoe Canyon trail
Canyonlands NP–Horseshoe Canyon Trail

At times there are trails that require more extreme modes of transportation, like an all-terrain Ice Explorer…

all-terrain Ice Explorer
Columbia Icefields–Athabasca Glacier

…or a train to explore the Rockies…

Banff Rocky Mountaineer trail
Banff–Rocky Mountaineer Tracks
Pikes Peak mountain trail
Pikes Peak–The Broadmoor’s Cog Railway

…or a formation of F/A-18 Hornets…

Blu Angel formation contrails

Blue Angels contrails
Marine Corp Air Station Miramar–Air Show

or even a Space Shuttle.

Atlantis shuttle (3)
Kennedy Space Center

But mostly, hiking a trail is best accomplished by putting one foot in front of the other, although the terrain can vary from sand…

footprints
White Sands National Monument
couple taking a walk
Singer Island Beach
Saguaro Valley View Overlook trail
Saguaro NP–Valley View Overlook Trail

…to volcanic gravel,

Lassen Cinder Cone trail
Lassen Volcanic NP–Cinder Cone Trail
Lassen Volcanic Painted Dunes trail
Lassen Volcanic NP–Painted Dunes Trail
Olympic staircase trail
Olympic NP–Staircase Rapids Nature Loop Trail

or from ice…

Athabasca Glacier trail1
Columbia Icefields–Athabasca Glacier

…to salt;

Salt Flats (2)
Death Valley–Badwater Basin

and from granite…

Yosemite Four Mile trail
Yosemite–Four-Mile Trail

…to sandstone;

Valley of Fire White Domes trail
Valley of Fire–White Dome Trail
Valley of Fire Wave trail
Valley of Fire–Fire Wave Trail
Palo Duro Canyon Big Cave trail
Palo Duro Canyon–Big Cave Trail
Bryce Canyon Amphitheater trail
Bryce Canyon–Hoodoo Amphitheater Trail
Wildrose Peak trail
Death Valley–Charcoal Hives–Wildrose Mountain Trail
Death Valley Fall Canyon trail
Death Valley–Fall Canyon Trail
Death Valley Golden Canyon trail1
Death Valley–Golden Canyon Trail

and from tree bark…

Sequoia Cedar Grove trail
Yosemite–Cedar Grove Trail

…to tree roots…

Athabasca Falls trail
Athabasca Falls Trail

…to pavement.

Sioux Falls Falls Park trail.jpg
Sioux Falls–Falls Park Trail
Looking down Kill Devil Hill
Kill Devil Hill–Wright Brothers Memorial Trail

But in the end, regardless of the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow,

parhelic circle with sundogs
Great Smoky Mountains NP–Andrews Bald–Parhelic Circle with Sun Dogs

it’s the journey to get from here to there that matters most–because it’s the journey that builds character, and defines us like the lines on the palms of our hand.

palm and seed.jpg
Sequoia NP–Sequoia seed

The Aftermath, or If I Could Be Anywhere Else Right Now

It’s been 48 hours since arriving home after one year of steadily moving about the country. However, now that I’m physically situated in one place, it seems my mind continues to wander, yearning for places I’ve been or yet to experience. I fear I’m going through wanderlust withdrawal.

The feeling is eerily reminiscent of adjusting to the constant sway aboard a boat–to where I’ve finally gotten my sea legs–yet after docking, the motion of the ocean has robbed me of my equilibrium. Nothing seems normal to me. I still feel adrift, like a bobbing buoy.

Perhaps it’s some sort of jet lag (without the jet), or some kind of Post-Travel Stress Disorder, where my internal GPS continues to send rerouting instructions with every step taken, redirecting my brain and body back to the Airstream presently parked in Lakewood.

Acclimating to everyday life has been challenging, as I’ve yet to re-establish my new old routine, or shake off unsettling circadian rhythms of disorientation. Already, I’ve forgotten which cabinet holds the coffee mugs, or where to find the bottle opener, or what it was like to sleep on a king-sized mattress. Even after unpacking, I’m likely to open the wrong dresser drawer to find my socks.

Of course, it’s only been two days since landing, so I’m certain the confusion will abate and I will eventually adjust to a different way to fill my day without hesitation. But in the meantime, I will travel to my favorite places through my photographs, and dream about the possibilities.

One special destination–among more than a hundred visited in the past year–that still resonates to my core is reliving the beauty of Banff.

Mount Victoria (2)
Mt. Victoria watching over Lake Louise

Epilogue

We pulled the Airstream onto Colonial Airstream’s parking lot in Lakewood NJ, on St. Patrick’s Day, ostensibly marking our one-year anniversary Streaming thru America, and my one-year anniversary of blogging with WordPress under the same moniker.

Colonial Airstream

This has been a journey of a lifetime after a lifetime of journeys. It seems that everything I’ve done up until last year’s departure has prepared me for this adventure: as a NYC taxi driver, I honed my driving skills; as a restaurateur, I learned to cook using simple ingredients to create meals with complex flavors; as a camper, I grew up with an appreciation of nature and an affinity for adventure; as a producer, I perfected a perspective for planning and budgeting; as a carpenter, I mastered my mechanical skills; and as a special educator, I learned how to gain acceptance with the many special people we’ve met along the way.

This has also been a trip of numbers. As road warriors, Leah and I have travelled to 127 destinations: covering a total of 44,600 miles (5,500 flying miles) to thirty-six U.S. States; one Mexican State (Quintana Roo); and four Canadian Provinces (Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia).

Cost-wise, Leah acted as bursar for the trip, and took responsibility for all data entry into a categorized spreadsheet. Using round numbers, our largest expense was campground fees at nearly $13,000. We stayed at a smattering of National Parks (only because gaining online reservations are fiercely contested up to a year in advance), a few State Parks, a handful of Provincial Parks, some County and City Parks, predominantly private RV parks (many Good Sam and KOA affiliates), and an occasional Walmart parking lot when we were transitioning between longer distances. As a rule, we rarely travelled further than a tankful of gas, or the rough equivalent of 400 miles.

Entertainment was our second leading expense at approximately $10,000, which covered films, concerts, shows, tours, park fees, and ample opportunities for sampling the best food of the area, from fine dining to dive bars.

Next, we spent nearly $8,000 purchasing food and groceries–including paper products, personal hygiene, and liquor–with the lion’s share spent at Walmart and Costco.

And our last largest expense was for gasoline and liquid propane, which ran us close to $8000. We made 115 trips to the pump for 3300 gallons of gas, yielding an average of 11.8 miles per gallon from coast to coast to coast, while towing mileage topped out at 10.1 MPG.

Living aboard the Airstream for a year was also an exercise in living with less. At 240 square feet from stem to stern…

2017-airstream-flying-cloud-27fb-2-e1521351550640.png

and cargo limited to a folded rear seat and 52.8 cu. ft. of storage behind the cab of our Ford F-150 pickup…

2017-ford-f-150-carry-on-seats-folded (4)

we learned to live efficiently, but never uncomfortably.

Leah and I scaled down to a small wardrobe of layering, using a combination of casual sportswear, appropriate outerwear and a wide variety of outdoor footwear to address most weather conditions.

The galley held two pots, two pans, two mix bowls, and Corel for four; a drawer of utensils and a drawer full of cooking and kitchen gadgets; a traditional assortment of spices and herbs; one presspot (mine), one two-cup percolator (Leah’s) and two coffee mugs; a tiny toaster, a hand mixer, a built-in microwave, a compact vacuum, and a VitaMix–my biggest indulgence for emergency frozen margaritas.

Electronics included: two mounted LED TVs, two tablets, one laptop, a color compact HP printer, a Kindle, a pair of UE Booms, Jaybird wireless earbuds, a Lumix DMZ-FZ300 for photography, and a tangle of cables and charging accessories.

The truck bed was home to a couple of stadium chairs, a CLAM screen enclosure, a 2000-Watt Honda generator, a hefty tool chest, and a portable Weber grill.

Our bicycles clung to the backside of the Airstream, tied to a Fiamma rack.

bikes.jpg

Getting along for 365 days was our biggest experiment, and a wild card for this trip’s success. While there was no denying our compatibility, we would often joke if we would still be smiling and talking to each other by day 365.

Our roles were defined early on, seemingly divided along gender lines: I did the routing, navigation and driving, the setups and breakdowns at RV sites, and all the general maintenance; while Leah acted as cleaning commando (inside and out) and laundry lieutenant. Invariably, Leah prepared a simple breakfast and packed a light lunch, while I played chef de cuisine for dinner.

Although our living quarters were tight, our door usually opened onto something spectacular, from sunrises…

sunrise (2)

Grand Canyon sunrise (2)

to sunsets…

Mt. Pleasant, SC

sunset

sundown panorama (2)

so most of days were spent exploring the extraordinary.

We brought along a cribbage board and backgammon set, thinking that when our conversation ran dry, we could always resort to games, but when it was the two of us together lounging in our lair, we either stretched out along the dinette streaming Netflix when internet allowed, or sought alone time at opposite ends of the trailer, separated by a sliding screen or a swinging lavatory door.

Our queenish-sized platform bed was roomy and comfy. And the only times we slept apart was for five days when I was fighting the flu. Otherwise, our sleeping cycles alternated between retiring together, or more often than not, Leah retiring early while I night-owled to edit photography du jour, or posted to my blog.

Although this blog is by no means the end, it has been a means to an end. Streaming thru America has given me a springboard to dive into my desire to write consistently for a audience bigger than one, and a jump-start to reinvigorating my passion for photography. Combining my writing and photography in a travel blog has been reaffirming and therapeutic, and the motivation I needed to pump out 160 posts of 100,000 words and 2800 photos along the way.

What started as a forum for family and friends has grown organically to a following of 1900 plus fans through WordPress and social media, with viewers from 140 countries along for the ride. I am awed and humbled every day that people from all over world find value in my words and pictures. And I am determined to keep going.

Long before we started out, Leah had already decided on our exit strategy–that once we’d completed our trip, and our Airstream had served its purpose, we’d put it on the selling block. But I had a different vision–that this trip would lay the foundation for future trips around the continent. While it would never be as epic as this particular journey, I could nonetheless foresee regional trips to faraway fields and streams for a month or two or three.

However, after shoving off and putting hundreds of miles behind us, the new and scary gave way to familiar and fearless, and Leah was hooked.

As it happens, there were so many destinations that we short-changed in favor of keeping the whirlwind spinning (see An Olympian Apology), not to mention sections of the country that we bypassed all together, that today we feel compelled to prepare preliminary plans to patch the holes in our past itinerary.

For now, the Airstream sits in the dealer’s lot awaiting its spring maintenance, although the fourth nor’easter forecasted to hit this area in as many weeks makes us yearn for the Texas heat spell we endured last April (see “We’re on the Road to Nowhere”).

When we return to Towaco, we’ll have a house to sell and a household to pack away for our anticipated move to St. Augustine (see Finally!). Then, in a few months, we’ll recapture the glory of living as seasoned road warriors, as we savor the feeling of hauling our reconditioned Airstream through the Shenandoah Valley and over the Blue Ridge Mountains to a long-term storage solution in Charlotte NC.

And before too long, it will be time to hitch up the Airstream like old times, and follow the road on a new course and a new adventure.

Until next time,

streaming thru america

Happy Trails!

Mercer’s Swan Song

High on a bluff, overlooking the Wilmington River, sits Bonaventure Cemetery, 160 acres of inspired Southern Gothic funerary art and monuments worthy of any fabled ghost story setting, and one of the most hauntingly beautiful resting places found in America.

Named Bonadventure–good fortune in Italian–and conceived as a 9,920-acre plantation stretching from Ebenezer to Sunbury, Georgia, the land owners, Tattnall Sr. and Mullryne (son and father-in-law) mistakenly sided with King George III during the Revolutionary War, and were immediately denounced as traitors and stripped of their holdings by a Georgia council.

Tattnall Jr. returned from England soon after the war and reacquired a 750-acre tract of the property, where he settled with his Savannah-bred wife and family, before selling to Peter Wiltberger in 1846, who converted the land to a cemetery.

The day of our visit was dreary and wet, and it seemed fitting that the Spanish moss draped over 300 year-old oak trees would be weeping from the occasional drizzle.

Theuslandscape

Oddly, two sets of gates provide access to the graveyard: a Christian wing to left…

Christian entrance

and a Jewish gate to the right.

Bonaventure gate for Jews

We approached a gravedigger who was stepping out of his pick-up.

“I couldn’t help but notice the Jewish stars on top of the gate posts,” observed Leah.

“Yes, ma’am,” responded Doug, “This here’s a public cemetery.”

So Christians and Jews are buried together?” I questioned.

“Yes, sir,” agreed Doug. “Each religion’s got their own separate sections, and…”

“And there’s still room inside?” Leah interrupted.

“Yes, ma’am. I dug two fresh graves today. But you can’t buy your way in anymore, cuz everything’s all sold out long ago. But people keep askin’. I guess they’s dyin’ to get in,” joked Doug.

Fascinating!

We set off to explore. The cemetery was unexpectedly quiet for being a top attraction for curiosity seekers, and the bereaved.

Bonaventure Lane

We were on separate missions. Leah went in search of her namesake, and found her in a short matter of time.

Leah Goldstein

Whereas, I was in search of Johnny Mercer’s memorial–the legendary lyricist who penned over 1500 songs, was nominated for 14 Academy Award nominations, won Oscars for The Days of Wine and Roses, Moon River, In the Cool, Cool, Cool, of the Evening, and On the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe, and co-founded Capitol records–which turned into more of a scavenger hunt.

Resorting to the internet, I discovered the section and plot (H-48), but finding it was another matter, since the layout is unlike any grid, with over 31,000 burial records to date.

map.jpg

Leah went one way, and I went another. We wandered aimlessly through rows and rows of plots till we plotzed. I quickly understood why guided tours through Bonadventure Cemetery are so popular.

Eventually, I got some help from a pair of caretakers who were blowing damp leaves across the dirt and gravel roads. They were eager to help, but my inability to translate Malaysian, turned my request into a game of Charades.

Using broken English and hand gestures, they redirected us to the general vicinity, where we crossed paths…

intersection

with officers…

General Anderson

Wheaton and wife

and gentlemen…

Morgan

Rauers

Dieter

ladies…

Hartridge

Ives

…and children.

4 babies

We wound our way through Section H until signs pointed to Johnny Mercer’s shrine of hits.

Johnny Mercer site

JM bench

Also in the vicinity, lies Georgia’s poet laureate and tragic orphan, Conrad Aiken,

Conrad Aiken

who is buried beside his father who murdered his mother, before turning the gun on himself when Conrad was 11-years old. Conrad went on to study at Harvard, where he was mentored by T.S. Eliot, and won the Pulitzer Prize for Selected Poems in 1930.

Another literary thread woven through the Bonaventure fabric includes New York Time’s longest-standing (216 weeks) bestseller, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, a true tale written by John Berendt.

midnight-in-the-garden-of-good-and-evil

The book cover featured Sylvia Shaw Judson’s Bird Girl, who graced the graveyard in relative obscurity for decades, until fans of the book sought out the statue’s location at Bonaventure, and began chipping away at its base for souvenirs. Eventually, Bird Girl was rescued and resettled in Savannah’s Telfair Museum of Art, where she can rest in one piece.

Bonaventure Cemetery under overcast skies during late autumn appears mostly monochromatic and presents a solemn and sombre mood. There are occasional pops of color from late blooms, to liven up a lifeless location,

angel and roses

but I was unprepared for the cheeky display I discovered on my way out.

cheeky Vaughn

For me, this represents a bonafide celebration of a life once lived, versus a death soon forgotten.

Oxymorons

Delicately durable and delicately vibrant–two oxymorons that epitomize the characteristics of an ammonite fossil exhibited at the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, Alberta.

ammonite (2)

Yet, it’s the simple complexity of the structure that best explains why after 200 million years, we can still appreciate its resilience and iridescence. The integrity of the ammonite’s spiral chambers are believed to have regulated buoyancy, and protected the crustacean from the tremendous force of oceanic pressure drops.

And while it may have taken an epoch of tectonic pressure, heat and mineralization to metamorphosize and fortify such a fragile fossil, the structure of time has enhanced our revelation of objects possessing rare and infinite beauty.

Smoke and Mirrors

Sadly, we were nearly out of time. Our visit to Banff and Jasper had taken our breath away, and now becomes the benchmark by which all future destinations will be judged.

Fortunately, our farewell tour followed the Icefields Parkway from Jasper to Banff, and continued down the Banff-Windermere Parkway to Radium Hot Springs–our last Canadian hurrah before reentering the States.

But this road trip promised to be different, because now we would be the tourists we intended to be a week ago–when we rushed to attend our Glacier Adventure, and missed the Icefields Parkway party.

“Why does it seem like we’re always in a hurry?” I asked rhetorically.

But this time we vowed to linger longer, and savor the flavor of the Canadian Rockies.

3 peaks

mountain-glow1.jpg

The skies were overcast at the start of the day, but a favorable forecast seemed promising, with the winds working to defeat the fog.

a ray of light

Upon returning from Maligne Canyon…

canyon bend.jpg

we were breezing down the Parkway, when suddenly I felt compelled to pull over.

“Wait a minute!” I declared. “That’s wild! How is that even possible?”

People and pets were crossing the spiritual sea–each one having a “Jesus moment”.

people and dog

As it turns out, during the summer, Edith Lake fills with inches of crystalline water, making it possible to wade through the sand flat with nary a risk of getting wet… unless you’re young at heart.

walking on water

There were several unforgettable stops along the way to Banff:

Iconic views of Endless Chain Ridge…

Endless Chain Ridge.jpg

Sunwapta Pass, the dividing point between Jasper and Banff National Parks…

Big Bend Parker's Ridge

The Athabasca Glacier, clinging to the sides of Mt. Athabasca and Mt. Andromeda…

Columbia Glacier

and Peyto Lake, a band of shimmering turquise reflecting nature’s magic act.

Peyto paddler

As we neared the Castle Junction, we crossed our fingers that we could cross to Kootenay National Park. Recent wildfires had kept the road closed for days, while firefighters worked around the clock to control the blaze. To miss the turn would add four hours to a seven-hour trip.

To our delight, the Castle Junction roadblock had just been lifted, and travel over the Continental Divide at Vermilion Pass had resumed…at least for the moment. We rolled along a vacant highway that we claimed as our own–as if we had the only key to this part of heaven’s gate. But then the scene turned hellish.

We could smell it before we saw it. The smoke that surrounded us was infiltrating the truck cab, and I struggled to close the vent while I looked for the source along the road. And then we were upon it. As we drove deeper into the vanishing skyline, our thoughts turned to the scorched earth and charred pikes that smoldered across the barren fields.

Kootenay on fire

The hills were ablaze, with billows of acrid smoke surging up the slopes and penetrating the highest peaks.

smolder

Aerial firefighters were making frequent passes in a Sisyphean effort to control the damage,

while the distant sound of gunning chainsaws drowned out the occasional birdsong.

fire gear

But as we pressed on, the light at the broad end of the funnel gave us renewed hope that we had passed through the darkest part of our day,

beauty thru the haze

as we fled the fiery furnace to the boiling cauldron of Radium Hot Springs.

Radium Hot Springs valley

Blue Icing on the Cake

Hiking six miles around five lakes left us energized and ready to explore more of Jasper, but we had to arrive at the Edith Cavell check-in point before 4:00 pm, or we’d be turned away. And that would be a shame, since we awoke at dawn to secure a coveted permit up Cavell Rd. to admire Angel Glacier clinging to the north face of Mt. Edith Cavell.

But in our haste, we turned left from the Valley of the Five Lakes parking lot, instead of turning right, and continued south on the Icefields Parkway till we reached Athabasca Falls.

“This isn’t right,” I announced, turning into the Athabasca Falls parking lot. “There’s no way, we’re going the right way. I need to see the map,” I declared.

Ordinarily, this attraction would have been a worthy succession to our last hike, except it was in the wrong direction. We should have caught our mistake sooner, but the soaring mountain peaks on both sides of the road can be hypnotic and easily rob a sensible person of their better judgement.

And so we inadvertently drove 12 miles out of our way, wasting precious time against our impending deadline. What now?

But then again, there are few better places in the world to u-turn.

“Look,” I suggested to Leah. “We may as well walk around. We’re already here.”

“So you’re okay about missing the glacier trail at Edith Cavell?” Leah countered.

“No, I’m not,” I insisted. “But if I’m going to leave here to drive there, and we’re too late for there, then we blew for here and there. So why not at least do something while we’re still here?” I thought my logic was impeccable, but then Leah played the absolution card.

“You’re gonna do whatever you want anyway, so why are you even asking me? Just don’t blame me if can’t get to Edith Cavell in time,” Leah asserted.

“We wouldn’t even be here if you hadn’t told me to turn left in the first place,” I said in my head.

“He’s so smug,” Leah thought to herself, “and it was his idea to extend the Five Lakes hike in the first place, so none of this is my fault if we don’t get there in time.”

Grabbing my camera, “Well then, I’m going to shoot the falls. What are your plans?”

Leah paused, then announced, “There’s way too many people here. I’ll just hang out in the truck. Besides, it’s just another waterfall.”

But that wasn’t the case. While the Athabasca Falls isn’t the longest and the widest in the Canadian Rockies, it surely ranks as the most powerful.

establishing falls

The fury of the water as it drops over the lip and plummets into the abyss is nothing short of spectacular…and the sound is deafening.

cascading water

On the other side of the viewing bridge, the turbulent water collects itself,

falls chute

as it runs though a canyon of its own making.

Athabasca Falls exit

The back road to Edith Cavell was winding, narrow and pitted, and 12 miles away. Arriving before our 4:00 pm cut-off would require some steering finesse, a good suspension, and a heavy foot. I was up for the task, and hoped that my F-150 was up to the challenge. It was us against the road.

I could feel my body absorbing the vibration as I firmly gripped the wheel. Leah was mostly quiet as I swayed around potholes without leaving the road.

“I should have worn a sports bra,” she lamented.

“Not to worry,” I assuaged, “We’re making good time.”

Even the road surface began to cooperate–going from rough to smooth. However, a time check showed 10 minutes left on the clock with a 10 minute ETA. It was going to be a very close call.

A road detour diverted us to a turn-off where we offered our credentials to a ranger sitting under a portable canopy, and we held our breath. He scanned a print-out before returning our permit.

“You’ll need to display this on the dashboard. Enjoy the park, guys,” he proclaimed, and waived us through.

“I can’t believe we made it!” Leah blurted, followed by a high-five.

“Piece of cake,” I replied.

Like a runner taking a celebration lap, we took our time on the road to the summit, advancing through a steady combination of hairpin switchbacks followed by long runs that kept me guessing how high we were climbing.

Finally, we pulled off the road at a clearing that gave me some answers.

overlook1

mountain valley

first look from trail

Soon after, we reached a parking area occupied by no more than twenty vehicles, and we instantly realized how lucky we were.

A trail head shrine dedicated to Edith Cavell gave us some insight into the person and this special habitat.

Cavell sign.jpg

The uphill climb along along the sub-alpine ridge revealed our first full look of the Angel’s blue tongue receding into the pass,

Angel Glacier upper

ice cliff.jpg

where glacial melt spilled between deep channels of rock…

glacier falls

…and collected into Cavell Pond,

lower angel glacier.jpg

guarded by Cavell Glacier–a 150 foot wall of ice…

Cavell Glacier.jpg

that occasionally calves into bobbing icebergs the size of school buses.

icefloes.jpg

The one mile trail terminates at a railed platform with a skewed view of the pond, albeit a safe distance away from potential avalanches.

But better views are there to those who are willing to scramble to greater heights over loose rock piles and between boulders as big as buildings…

ice pass

to a place where playful hoary marmots dart…

marmot

marmot CU.jpg

around the many imaginative cairns that punctuate the landscape.

kairn.jpg

This is a solemn place that memorializes the service and duty of Edith Cavell.

Cavell Glacier overlook

This is a place where angels fly…

Cavell Lake.jpg

 

 

 

Valley of the Five Lakes

Clouds to the right of us…

overcast sky1

…and clouds to the left of us…

overcast sky 2

…left us completely surrounded by clouds. Now we had to figure out what to do on such an overcast day.

Park cognoscenti suggested a popular destination showcasing five distinctly different alpine lakes–each with its own signature green hue. I was hooked.

With temperatures dropping overnight to comfortable levels, an extended hike to the lakes became the likely candidate for the first half of our day, provided we could balance the second half of the day with a visit to Edith Cavell Mountain, located within the vicinity. However, the access road to the mountain was now restricted to limited traffic while the trail head parking lot has been undergoing needed repairs from a flash flood months ago. So, park headquarters–when it opens at 8:00 am– has been issuing a controlled number of passes to Edith Cavell at staggered times on a first-come first-serve basis.

We arrived at the requisite hour to encounter the line for passes winding around the building. 15 minutes later, Leah emerged with a 2:00 pm call time along with a two hour buffer. Our itinerary was set.

Surprisingly, when we arrived at the Valley of Five Lakes parking location, only a few cars occupied the lot. Maybe it was the threat of rain, or maybe it was our lucky day. Either way, we were not apologizing for feeling lucky.

Scanning the trail map gave us perspective for our hike,

park map

but we weren’t prepared for a sophisticated signpost at the start of the trail,

signpost

or an amber graphic touting the trail in greater detail, which made the impending hike seem more foreboding.

amber sign

According to the legend, we were being directed to the Fifth Lake first. I thought it odd to begin the first leg of the Valley of the Five Lakes hike at Fifth Lake, but then no one sought my counsel about the matter.

5th lake sign

The long and narrow lake was shallow, but a raft of ducks glided across the water effortlessly. Two rowboats were chained around a tree stump by a slumping dock with a rental notice painted across the bow, but both boats were taking on water.

Lake 5.jpg

Lake 5.1

We rounded the tip of Fifth Lake, to discover the Fourth Lake,

4th lake sign

which had been shrouded by the trees as we walked alongside it on our way to the first lake, Fifth Lake.

Fourth Lake was like a kidney-shaped pool filled with the illusion of a primordial incubus submerged across the diameter, but in an inviting way, drawing us closer.

Lake 4

It too was shallow like Fifth Lake, but Fifth Lake reflected a paler tone. And while Fifth Lake appeared serene, Fourth Lake’s personality rivaled the Sirens.

Lake 4.2

Hiking to Third Lake turned out to be only steps away from Fourth Lake, but I didn’t know it at the time. A footbridge crossed over a running stream from Fourth Lake that fed into Third Lake, so it appeared that Third Lake really belonged to Fourth Lake.

Yet the map showed a distinctive break between the two Lakes. I had my doubts about the legitimacy of Lake Three, but no one was asking my opinion on the matter.

And then Leah called out to me from around the bend, “I found the sign for the Third Lake.”

3rd lake sign

Gaining some elevation on the trail made all the difference, revealing an eerie luminescent halo hugging the shoreline of Third Lake.

Lake 3.1

Lake 3

which differed from Fourth Lake’s lack of uniformity, and the shape of Fifth Lake.

And it was on to Second Lake,

2nd lake sign

the smallest of the Five Lakes, which by comparison probably deserved to be called a pond and not a lake, but no one bothered to ask my opinion on the matter.

Lake 2

Nevertheless, the shimmering green soup of the Second Lake was haunting and other-worldly under gray skies, where the light seemed to emanate from under the water.

Lake 2.1

With only the First Lake left to see, we approached a crossroads in the trail. Either we finish the hike by passing the First Lake on our right, or we extend the hike another 2.5 miles by circling the final lake.

1st lake sign

After a quick look at the long ribbon of turquoise water disappearing around the bend, I knew I needed to see First Lake from the other side.

Lake 1.2

Yet it seemed like First Lake was playing hard to get. Along the way, thick tree cover offered only teasing views,

Lake 1 tease

until we reached an opening that finally offered a sweeping vista of First Lake.

Lake 1

A path of braided tree roots

braid of roots

led us to the top of First Lake,

Lake 1.1

where rock rubble challenged the overflow that fed the lush marsh grass downstream.

marsh grass

The hike was satisfying, but we emerged from the forest later than expected at 3:00 pm, giving us one hour to make the trip to Edith Cavell check-in. It was going to be a race against the clock.

Stay tuned…

H2O-2-GO

The Icefields Parkway represents the spine of Banff and Jasper National Parks. It runs a crooked line astride the Continental Divide for 140 miles between Lake Louise and the town of Jasper–rising and falling, twisting and turning–as it follows rugged mountain vertebrae, verdant river veins, alpine organs of opalescent waters, and at the heart of it all, the highest concentration of ancient glaciers in the Rocky Mountains.

Athabasca River (2)

While it can take 3.5 hours to complete the journey without stopping, most travelers will take their time, stopping along the way to inhale the majestic beauty. Unfortunately, we were in no position to stop and gawk. We were holding our breath, hoping to arrive in time for a prepaid tour of Athabasca Glacier.

It drove me crazy, passing up scene after scene, my shutter finger convulsing around the steering wheel as we pressed on toward our destination. And even if we had all the time in the world, nearly all the turn-offs were on the opposite side of the road, making it a logistical nightmare for the Airstream behind us.

“All I can say,” lamenting to Leah, “it’s a good thing we’re coming back the same way, so we can stop as much as we want to take it all in.”

Leah had no objections.

Having started from Banff Village, we were among the last of 56 ticket-holders to be scanned for the 2:30 tour, only to stand by for another half hour…

waiting in line

…until a bus could drive us to the Ice Explorer depot…

ice explorer depot

…where we waited another 15 minutes for an available Brewster behemoth of our own. I was excited to take the ride onto the glacier in this buggy, although the boarding sign caused Leah some anxiety.

warning

We learned from Ryan, our twenty-something driver, that the tires are 5 feet in diameter, rated at 15 pounds pressure (half that of an auto tire) so they don’t harm the ice, and cost $3000 a piece.

tires

Once we got rolling, we paused at the crest until Ryan got radio clearance to continue…

Athabasca Glacier crossroads.

…down a 33% grade that pressed us against the front of our seats,

on the road of ice

yet delivered exhilarating views of the glacial ridge,

glacier

and an ice tour in progress to the tongue of the glacier.

ice tour

Before disembarking, Ryan delivered strict instructions: “I want to be clear about this. You walk onto the glacier at your own peril. You have 20 minutes on the ice, that’s it! This bus leaves at exactly 3:45 pm, no exceptions! Any questions?… Good! And don’t forget to fill up your water bottles. This is the purest water you’ll ever drink.

With that said, we climbed down the ladder stairs, and joined approximately 300 sightseers already on the ice.

explorers on the ice

Almost immediately, there was a surge to the rope line 200 ft. ahead, where a Battle Royale ensued for unobstructed “selfies” of the glacial mouth. We stood in awe of the competitive scramble,

portrait

which was a huge distraction from the awe of the terrain.

glacial ridge

Of course, with the clock running down, we turned our attention to the glacial spring running through the middle of the pedestrian corral.

flower and ice

ice water

so Leah could fill her bottle with 200 thousand year-old vintage water.

glacial water

After returning to the depot with all passengers accounted for, we boarded another bus that continued to Brewster’s Glacier Skywalk,–a glass-plated arch nearly two inches thick, suspended 800 feet above the valley floor–

glacier skywalk

glacier bridge

steel supports

giving us commanding views of Athabasca Mountain,

Athabasca Mountain

the corresponding run-off,

waterfalls

stormy river

…and a local grazer, precariously gripping the mountainside.

 

Even now, I’m uncertain how the mountain goat turned itself around.

Not that l’m complaining, but one year ago, Leah and I had an opportunity to visit the Juneau Icefields by helicopter…

flying over Herbert Glacier

and step onto Herbert Glacier where nobody was waiting.

landing on Herbert Glacier

Herbert detail

The remoteness gave us a completely different perspective and appreciation of nature that Brewster was unable to deliver.

But at the very least, we left with a bottle of chilled glacial water.

Cheers.

Ahhh!

 

 

 

 

Banff Is My New Bff

I really missed being in the mountains, and eagerly anticipated the rush of crossing into the Canadian Rockies. After a month of wandering through American and Canadian prairies, Leah and I were more than ready for a change in scenery, but it came with a dose of anxiety.

British Columbia was on fire at several National Park locations, and much of the smoke and ash that was rising into the high air was now drifting toward us, acting as a blue sky spoiler.

Cloud over Kootaney

A gauzy gray veil had settled over the mountains surrounding Banff, cloaking the distant peaks like a cruel magic vanishing act.

overcast sky

There was little to be done about many of the fires that were burning out of control, so essentially, we were at the mercy of the winds to give us back our views.

We secured reservations months ago for a coveted trailer court site inside the park, but could only manage to snag two overnights, as this was the park’s busiest time of the year. Our biggest concern: salvaging two precious days in a park so vast, with so many highlights to choose from, while wildfires loomed over the horizon.

As luck would have it, we overshot the turnoff to our campground on Tunnel Mountain Drive with no chance of u-turning with a twenty-eight foot Airstream in tow. I drove on until a turn-in appeared a short distance up the road featuring Banff’s only hoodoos– overwhelmed by the grandeur of Mount Rundle and the beauty of Bow Valley.

hoodoos-and-bow-river.jpg

Once we settled into site 818, we drove to town in search of recommendations from the Visitor’s Center staff, and came away with an avalanche of maps and brochures, along with a strong warning about bear activity in the park. Apparently, August is known for offering the best berries for bears in Banff.

With the haze blowing west and sky beginning to brighten by 5:00 pm, we headed out to Johnson Lake–a favorite for paddlers, and the warmest alpine lake in the park for swimming at 50º F.

Johnson Lake

But we were content to hike the loop around the lake and gaze at Cascade Mountain in the distance before calling it a day.

Johnson Lake with inflatable

On our return ride to the Airstream, we were surprised to find a small herd of bighorns grazing by the side of the road…

bighorn herd

…while an elder patrolled the perimeter.

one-eyed sheep

The following day–with fires raging to the southwest of us–we planned a trip to the north country in search of clear skies. A leisurely ride along the Bow Valley Parkway (from the Village of Banff to its terminus at the Village of Lake Louise) gave us plenty to see, with several stops along the way—most of them intentional…

Castle Mountain1

snowcaps

rail bed

Ranger Creek

Mount Ishbel

and one of them unexpected.

black bear

We eventually arrived at Lake Louise via park shuttle on the advice of a park official who claimed that the parking lot by the lake was bulging with traffic chaos, which turned out to be an understatement. Even the road to Moraine Lake, an off-shoot of our shuttle route was barricaded to all traffic.

The short trail to the Lake revealed a sea of people on the boardwalk jockeying for position with selfie sticks–each one vying for the iconic pose with Mount Victoria in the background. As if in a trance, I stood in awe of the scene, my focus rapidly shifting between the splendor of Victoria Glacier and the vivid turquoise water, and wondering if any photograph could ever capture the beauty I felt honored to witness.

Victoria Mountain

It was only after somebody tapped me to snap their picture that I came to my senses. Of course, they gladly returned the favor.

portrait

Leah and I elected to hike the Fairview Trail, a one-mile ascent through a spruce forest offering commanding views of Chateau Lake Louise. There was no vacancy at the hotel that day, despite room rates ranging from $450 to $1100 per night.

Lake Louise Lodge from Fairview overlook

Equally shocking was the rate for canoe rentals at the boathouse.

canoe pricing

But avid seafarers were undeterred, as reservations were unavailable for the next two days.

Canoes for rent

At 5:00 pm the barricades to Moraine Lake were lifted, once again making it acceptable to drive the distance to an overflowing parking lot. We passed car after car haphazardly leaning into a drainage ditch along the roadbed in lieu of a formal parking space half a mile ahead. Consequently, we were road-sharing with fearless pedestrians who were determined to make a pilgrimage to the lake, come hell or high traffic.

For many, it was equivalent to a religious experience…

Lake Moraine1

Lake Moraine canoe rental

Lake Moraine

glacier on the mountain

While some bridesmaids found it titillating.

swimmers

wedding

The next day we awoke to a hazy sky. The fires in Kootenay National Park were spreading south of us, causing thousands in BC to evacuate. We were scheduled to pack up and leave by 11:00 am, but on a whim, I challenged the campground attendant to search for cancellations and find me an extra day.

And she did!

While I would have preferred to stay put at #818, the site was promised to another. The best she could do was to place me next door in #816. It meant having to unhook all the utilities, and hitch up the Airstream only to pull it 50 feet, but I wasn’t complaining. I can’t imagine a faster move!

With our bonus day, we cruised the Vermillion Lakes Trail, stopping to admire Mount Rundle, considered the most photographed, painted, and climbed mountain in Banff.

Mt. Rundle behind Vermillion Lakes

After debating our next objective, we elected to drive a short distance into BC to inspect a waterfall from above at Marble Canyon in Kootenay–as long as it wasn’t on fire! However, as if by providence, an attendant was lifting the parking barricade to Johnson Canyon as we were approaching the turn-in, and we quickly detoured to one of Banff’s signature trails.

We followed a paved trail bordered by arrow-straight pines…

Leah and bow tree

bow tree Johnson Canyon

as it transitioned into a cantilevered walkway, steadily climbing along a fast and meandering stream, where it culminated in a bridge across a torrent of cascading water…

JC lower falls

…that lead through a narrow low-clearance tunnel.

“I’d make sure to protect my head if I was you,” I advised Leah.

We battled through the claustrophobia and B.O. until the passage opened out to an onslaught of gushing water.

Johnson falls spray

By this time, Leah’s arches were giving out, and we would have called it a day, but we pledged to make good on our original plan, so it was off to Kootenay we went.

Marble Canyon was a slow assent along a canyon of rock, where the water was steadily dropping lower into the gorge beneath our feet, and every step brought us closer to the source of the roar.

Marble Canyon

marble-canyon-falls.jpg

falling water Marble canyon

The only thing left to do was to hike downhill to the stream, and feel the alpine water rush over my feet, as I watched the clouds race across a clear sky.

We borrowed from Bow Valley Provincial Park, next door to score an extra day in Banff and it paid off–the weather cooperated, the smoke dissipated, and the scenery elevated our mood and our feet.

 

 

Way Back in the Day

On the recommendation of a film school buddy who’s been Canadian all his life, we doubled back east of Calgary to tour the Red Deer River Valley, hitting many of the Badlands hot-spots before immersing ourselves in Drumheller dino-madness.

We drove for nearly two hours along prairie roads, wondering when the landscape would eventually change from grasslands and rolling hills of yellow flax to familiar slopes of striated colors separated by narrow gullies and ravines.

It wasn’t long before we descended into Drumheller Valley and celebrated a welcome change of scenery.

horseshoe canyon

Badlands mounds

Badlands swirl

“I’m guessing that this would seem amazing if you’ve never seen the Badlands of North and South Dakota,” opined Leah. It’s true that while it didn’t quite measure up to our recent experiences at Theodore Roosevelt National Park (see Oddities—North Unit) or Badlands National Park (see Battle Lands), it was still an improvement over miles upon miles of farms and ranches.

All of which brings up an interesting question about Badlands semantics: When comparing two Badlands, is the substandard Badlands better or worse than it’s counterpart, or are we just spiraling down an oxymoronic rabbit hole?

Anyway, we picked up the Hoodoo Trail toward East Coulee and pulled into a busy parking lot across the road from a “protected area” where interpretive signs and steel railing surrounded what was left of a few limestone columns.

hoodoo group

hoodoos

A forty-something mom was telling her pre-teen son and adolescent daughter that this site was one of her favorites to visit when she was their age, but it was her recollection that there were many more hoodoos at the time.

“What happened to them?” asked Sonny Boy.

“Well,” Mom began, “the weather wore them away, and I guess people vandalized them by too much climbing around, so don’t wander off.” With that, the kids broke free and ambled up the steep slopes with the finesse of bighorn sheep. “Don’t go too far up,” Mom yelled after them, but the kids would not be denied.

Most of the visitors were content to stand on the viewing platform looking up, but I was keen on a closer look.

hoodoo

And while the hoodoos appeared drab in color, the possibility of getting close enough to feel the flaking texture was enough of a reward.

Hoodoo texture

It was while I was working my way back to the viewing deck that I heard a distant cry from the top of the mesa.

mesa top

“MY KNEE LOCKED UP, AND BARRY SAYS HE’S GONNA BE SICK,” yelled the daughter to her mom, “AND I DON’T THINK I’M ABLE TO GET DOWN!”

Mom wondered aloud to herself, “Now what am I supposed to do?”

“Maybe you should call 9-1-1,” Leah offered.

Not wanting to stick around to watch the drama unfold, we headed to a nearby historic site just pass East Coulee on the other side of the Red Deer River.

Atlas Coal Mine

Atlas Coal Mine now serves as a stark reminder of the energy heyday of the early 1900’s, up until the last lump of coal was quarried in 1979. Atlas is also home to the last wooden tipple in Canada,

tipple profile

Atlas Mine tippet

Mine chute

and the source of several recorded unexplained occurrences that have led visitors and paranormalists to conclude that apparitions and voices are as much a part of the physical space as the graveyard of discarded machines that line the entrance to the museum.

On our way back, we passed the hoodoos in time to see an ambulance pull away with who we suspect were the stranded kids on the mesa.

After enjoying lunch nearby at Star Mine Suspension Bridge,

bridge sign

suspension

bridge cable

we stepped into the F-150 way-back machine, set the controls for the Cretaceous Period, and transported 67 million years back in time when being a vegetarian got you killed if you were a dinosaur.

carnivores

We were overwhelmed at the rich assortment of skeletons…

attack

and fossils…

raptor

on display at the world reknown Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology.

Apparently, Southern Alberta boasts some of the richest bone-beds in the world for which experts give two simple reasons: it was a good place to live and a better place to die!

The museum goes on to explain that large herbivorous dinosaurs thrived on the abundance of lush vegetation available to them,

triceratops

which in turn supported the carnivorous dinosaurs’ huge appetite.

T-Rex

And so many dinosaurs during the Cretaceous Period were preserved intact, since the region’s floodplains provided the perfect burial grounds, only to be revealed by Ice Age erosion, and later exhumed by the hard-working staff at the museum.

prep lab

At times, taking five years to prepare an exhibit of a prehistoric crocodile.

ancient crocodile

But despite all the serious science to be found at the Royal Tyrrell, dinosaurs can also support the town economy of Drumheller, and dinosaurs can be fun!

world's biggest dinosaur

Back in the Day

Taming the Canadian Wild West required spirit, courage and resolve. Throw in the railroad, the missionaries, and the Mounted Police, and Calgary soon took shape along the banks of the Bow River.

A visit to Heritage Park in Calgary…

heritage park signage (2)

retells the history through a fully recreated settlement of restored buildings occupied by staff members dressed in period costumes,

day is done

with each attendant recounting a personal story of a life ruled by harsh weather and frontier justice, but a life that nonetheless fueled the promise of freedom for so many.

Locomotive 2024 chugged around the park, pulling cars of passengers toward a variety of thematic destinations throughout the village.

train ride

We passed the grain elevator,

pass the grain elevator

where we disembarked for a “taste” of ranch living.

hay is for horses

mom and twins

pink pig

dairy and boxes

Next stop…

skytrain

engineers

…Main Street,

Main Street

for a game of snooker, and a shave…

barbershop

…so I could look my best for Leah and the ladies who lived over Drew’s Saloon.

Drew's Saloon

Another station away…

steam engine

and we were reminded how fragile society was, with the First Nations’ Encampment looming outside the walls of the Hudson Bay Trading Fort,

encampment

while the decision-makers enjoyed the creature comforts of luxury living in what seemed to be another world away.

luxury living

moose dining

bedroom comfort

white sidewalls

Famous Five

It was easy to “escape” to another time, but not-so-subtle clues kept pulling us back to the present,

general store

where a modern city beckoned in the distance,

downtown

and pulled us closer to familiar ground…

Calgary Tower

tower top

until the ground gave way beneath our feet.

bottom

and we were floating!

don't look down

Pioneers of Alberta had to be equally uncertain of their footing after colonizing in a hostile and (at times) unforgiving land. Yet they were ambitious with lofty goals, which paid off handsomely, when Calgary, Alberta hosted the 1988 Winter Olympics, and brought the distant mountains within reach.

mountains (2)

Moose Jaw

After weeks of diligently searching for a moose, we finally bagged one in Moose Jaw. Never mind that it also happened to be the largest statue of a moose, anywhere. Rising thirty-two feet from his wrought iron pen, it’s hard to miss Mac the Moose while cruising the Trans Canada Highway through Saskatchewan.

Mac CU

Travelers will also have little trouble spotting the adjacent art deco-styled Visitor Center, inspired by the city’s famed Temple Garden Dance Hall of 1921.

information center

Temple-Gardens (2)

Moose Jaw has invested heavily in the nostalgia business, and it seems to have paid off. Today, its fortunes rest on the folklore surrounding Al Capone’s involvement in Prohibition bootlegging, and the town’s willingness to capitalize on a network of underground tunnels used in 1908 to shelter Chinese railway workers from racial persecution, and years later, to enable a black market of whiskey and women.

Downtown Moose Jaw showcases its notorious history on the exterior of it vintage buildings,

and through its fascination of all things Scarface.

Capone's Hideaway

The Tunnels of Moose Jaw opened in 2000, and remains a top pick of Moose Jaw tourist attractions. Naturally, Leah and I had to check it out for ourselves.

At first, we thought we’d be exploring the catacombs under the city streets, but soon learned after arriving at the Tunnels storefront that we’d be participating in a theatrical presentation of The Chicago Connection, featuring guns, gals, and gangsters.

Actors in period costumes encouraged us to turn back the clock to 1927 by exploring the collection of memorabilia from a by-gone era of Victorian virtues, political corruption, and criminal greed. This was the story of Al Capone’s alleged underground bootlegging connection to Moose Jaw, and everyone in our group was assigned to play a part in the bootleg operations of America’s richest man, and Public Enemy Number One.

Capone mug shot

We crossed the street to a bakery cafe where heaven-scented cinnamon buns mingled with the essence of caffeine. We reassembled one flight up, waiting for Miss Fanny, a floozy who ran the town’s most popular speakeasy. Acting as history teacher and social commentator, Fanny chaperoned us through a variety of theatrical sets to give us a taste of the Twenties. We followed her through recreations of Capone’s office and bedroom, eventually taking stairs hidden behind his clothes closet to a tunnel beneath the street.

Role-play continued with Gus, Capone’s second-in-command, who led us through the bookkeeper’s office,

Capone's lair

the keg storage, the gun room, and the game room–always one step ahead of the police blitz and machine gun sound effects.  After 50 minutes of mayhem, we evacuated through the storefront basement and we transported back to 2017.

Fahgettaboudit!! It was silly fun for the audience, and good training for our thespian plebes.


 

The following day, we took a 30-minute ride north to Buffalo Pound Provincial Park with every intention of seeing bison, even though we’d been spoiled by close encounters in other parks (see Cavfefe). With “Buffalo” taking first billing in the park name, how could there not be a bison sighting?

Although the park is so much more than a paddock of tagged bison, the herd was not playing hard to get.

bison herd

bison cud

They were very accommodating–lounging in a pasture along the road within sight of their future breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

hay bales

We bid them goodbye, and moseyed to the marsh flats…

nicolle-flats.jpg

where we wandered down a pontoon boardwalk that cut through wetlands of cattails and reeds.

Marsh grass relection

duck

The prairie was peaceful, and we had it all to ourselves. The hillside of the Qu’Appelle Valley was aglow with golden grass shimmering in the gentle breeze.

Lake and Flats

Afterwards, the calm cool waters of Buffalo Pound Lake provided the perfect relief from a searing summer sun.

Buffalo Pound Lake

Moose Jaw reminds us of a time when lawlessness and corruption was the new order of the day. Yet, sometimes it’s hard to judge how far we’ve come from Wild West ways, when it’s still troublesome telling the good guys apart from the bad guys.

Fortunately, Buffalo Pound reminds us of what we can accomplishment–by rescuing the bison from near extinction–and that we can always count on nature to give us perspective.

A Park Where Nothing Happens

Riding Mountain threw us off our game from the very start. We were eager to visit our first Canadian National Park–as the whole country and its visitors from outside are celebrating Canada 150 with free admission to Parks Canada–but we really didn’t know what to expect. Our experience with National Parks in America allows us to anticipate the awe inspired by iconic landmarks. For instance: Arches has Delicate Arch; Bryce has the Amphitheater; Yellowstone has Prismatic Lake and Old Faithful; and Grand Canyon has, well, a grand canyon. How would Canada’s parks hold up by comparison?

I knew we were in trouble the moment we arrived at Sportsman Park in Onanole, Manitoba, a self-proclaimed RV Park located minutes from the Riding Mountain entrance. We were looking for a spacious and grassy pull-through to match the website picture that lured me into making a reservation. What we found was a cramped and worn neighborhood of crusty campers settled onto dirt patches where a blade of grass struggles to be green. It reminded me of an internment camp for refugee trailers.

A misfit on a motorcross cycle guided us to a site that challenged the laws of physics. To start with, making a wide turn onto the designated lane required a full-timer to deconstruct a portable basketball hoop struggling to stand on the corner lot. Once clear, we continued to Row B/Site 14, where our ambassador coached me around a parked car and a sprawling tree, through a raised curb, and beyond a floating wood deck that prevented the Airstream door steps from fully extending. Somehow, I managed to inch between two trailers with extended slide-outs.

Ian, my new next-door-neighbor, commented, “Didn’t think you were gonna make it, eh?”

“How do people usually manage to get into this spot?” I wondered.

“Nobody ever does,” Ian responded. “This spot’s gone vacant for more than a year.”

“You been here that long?” I doubted.

“Goin’ on five years, now that I have a son an’ all,” Ian beamed.

Ian was gracious and full of information. “Be careful at night, eh” he warned. “There’s a bear been pokin’ around here last couple nights, ever since the guy across the way spilled some grease. So it’s a good idea to always have a flashlight handy, eh.”

Note to self, “Stay inside the Airstream after dark.”

The following day, we headed for the Interpretive Center for a customary face-to-face with a ranger. He explained that Riding Mountain is at the confluence of three distinct ecosystems: prairie, boreal forest and hardwood forest. It’s divided into Front Country and Back Country with over 400 km of trails, and home to elk, moose, coyotes, wolves, lynx, beaver, bison, and the largest black bear population in North America.

“You know what to do if you encounter a bear, don’t-cha?” asked Ranger Scott.

“What do you recommend?” Leah asked.

Ranger Scott explained, “When you go into the woods, you need to smell like a human. That means you skip deodorant for the day! And make sure your clothes don’t smell like what you had for dinner. Don’t carry unwrapped food with you, and don’t forget to make some noise on the trail while you’re moving. Should you meet a bear, DON’T RUN! Just step back, never looking directly at the bear.

“What about bear spray?” I was curious.

“Never use the stuff,” Scott boasted. “But I always wear an extra shirt when I’m hiking, no matter how hot it is. So if necessary, I spread open the shirt with my arms out like this [demonstrating], and right away that bear is now lookin’ at someone who’s doubled in size. Saved my bacon on a couple occasions using that technique.”

We left Scott with a decent idea of how we’d spend the next couple of days. For starters, we took a perimeter trail around Clear Lake in the village of Wasagaming, with the lake to our left,

Clear Lake

and an array of charming cottages and cabins on our right. In a unique arrangement with Park Canada, home owners lease their property in perpetuity from the government. When title to a home is transferred to another family member, or is sold outright to a buyer, the lease always becomes a part of the deal. But if government regulations are ever broken, the tenant can be evicted and dispossessed.

Curious about the value of  Wasagaming lakefront property, we did a little digging…

and found a newly remodeled 3 bedroom/2 bath 1700 sq. ft. bungalow listed for $800,000 CAD, but we weren’t ready to move to Canada just yet.

We continued our day with an off-road ride to the top of the Manitoba Escarpment, with hazy views from the overlook,

Manitoba Escarpment view

and followed the road to the park’s east boundary, where the distinctive East Gate Entrance Building (the only surviving gate structure at Riding Mountain) gave us a glimpse of traditional 1930’s “parchitecture”, and reminded us of a time when motorcars were first gaining in popularity.

East Gate West Sun

That evening we took a sunset walk on the Onanole Trail beside the RV Park. The trail began at the gnomes’ house…

Troll House

continued through a pine forest, and opened onto an expansive field of prairie grass, taking us around to a wooded opening on the other side of the field.

Prairie grass and Leah

We would have continued along had it not been for the volume of bear scat littering the trail.

That night, Ian’s campfire went well beyond the midnight quiet-time curfew, causing Leah to lose sleep while I stayed up to write.

“Isn’t there something you can do?” she complained.

But before I could offer my ugly American alibi, one of the party people yelled out, “BEAR!”

The commotion was over in a flash and so was the party. “Well, that was effective,” I mused.

The next day, we elected to hike around Moon Lake,

Moon Lake

taking a 9 km loop trail through high, hearty shrubs and poison ivy. It was not what we expected; the lake had disappeared from view. The trail was heavily overgrown and still wet from a flash thunderstorm the night before, making the moose prints more imposing.

moose track

With Leah in front, calling off bears and moose, and me in the rear, swatting away voracious mosquitoes, we wondered if this hike would ever end. Midway through the hike we encountered another couple taking the loop from the other direction.

“See any bears or moose?” Leah questioned.

“Lots of tracks, but no animals,” he answered. “Yet I sense we’re being watched.” she volunteered. “Anyway,” she continued, “there’s a lovely clearing ahead. Enjoy.” And they were gone.

The flat trail turned steep as we climbed into a grove of firs, and we caught our first glimpse of the lake we were circling.

Moon Lake Overlook

Soon we were bordering the banks, stepping over freshly broken plant stalks that only a moose could manage. Suddenly, Leah stepped into an uncertain spot that swallowed her boot whole, and caused her to lose balance, plunging the other foot into even deeper mud. I might have taken her picture, if I wasn’t so busy pulling her free, and I was certain that she’d forgive me later.

We emerged tired, muddy and grateful to have put this hike behind us, but still curious about the bison enclosure at Lake Audy one hour away. We’d made it our mission to see at least one wild animal in this park–even if it meant watching a small herd of bison roaming through the prairie…again.

But there were no bison grazing, or roaming, or rolling in the dust, anywhere. The viewing deck that overlooks the grasslands held no surprises, and was devoid of beasts of any kind.

Yet, it was hard to ignore the swooping passes of several starlings that darted in and out of the gallery. A closer look around the rafters, gave us the gratification we were searching for.

Heads and tail

Feed me (2)

Yum

Half a million visitors arrive each year to Riding Mountain to enjoy the crystalline water of Clear Lake, or stroll through the charming town of Wasagaming, or angle for trout and walleye in the streams and lakes, or hike and bike through biodiverse ecosystems, but mostly people come to witness the wide assortment of wildlife.

Unfortunately, Leah and I found no animals present, although we’re certain they were around us–which is why we believe that Riding Mountain National Park is for the birds.

Facing the Future of Awareness

The van in front finally pulled away, making it my turn to methodically approach the gatehouse window with the Airstream in tow. But nobody was home. Leah noticed an outstretched arm extended from a raised window a dozen feet forward, and it was waving me closer. I inched parallel to the higher window, and awkwardly offered our documents.

“You realize you’re in the wrong line?” he criticized.

“There was no sign,” I responded sheepishly.

“Take off your sunglasses,” he ordered. “Where are you going and what’s your purpose?”

“We’re on our way to Winnipeg to celebrate Bastille Day,” I announced.

“Bastille Day, huh! So you’re up for a couple of days?” he barked.

“Actually longer, about four weeks,” I offered. “We’re here to tour your beautiful country… drive across to Calgary and visit Banff and Jasper before returning to the States.”

“You carrying any drugs, alcohol, guns, ammunition?”

“No.”

“You ever visit Canada before?”

“Yes.”

“When last?”

“We were in Alaska last summer and crossed over to Yukon.”

“How much money you carrying?”

“About a thousand dollars.”

“Enjoy your stay,” he stated dryly, handing back our passports.

We were immediately reminded of driving in a foreign country when the road signs posted maximum speed limits in km, and the bi-lingual billboards promoted it products in French.

“How do you know how fast you’re going,” Leah posed?

“I have a button on the steering wheel,” I bragged, pushing the button. “And it automatically makes the adjustment on the display. Voila!”

“So cool,” Leah deadpanned.

The Bastille Day ritual was being held au petit jardin de sculptures beside the old City Hall-turned tourism center/art gallery in the Franco-friendly Winnipeg ward of St. Boniface. Children with painted faces played with balloons, while parents drank wine and ate smelly cheese poured over stale-crusted bread. A trio played behind a chanteuse doing an Edith Piaf impression, and the mood was festive. We left early, thinking the celebration was anti-climactic.

The ride home took us across the Red River, where we previewed a hulking structure that is Canada’s newest national museum, and Winnipeg’s newest tourist attraction and controversy.

bdlg rear

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights, completed in 2014, sits atop the Forks–long considered sacred ancestral soil by the Aboriginals, and part of Treaty One Territory. Instantly, the site selection sparked passionate criticism from Aboriginal elders, who argued for more time after 400,000-plus artifacts were discovered during initial ground-breaking and subsequent archaeological excavation.

Protests continued throughout construction by advocacy groups who perceived that inadequate exhibition space would never address the scope of one group’s suffering, while other advocates claimed that another group whose misery was elevated to a higher status was granted more square footage than deserved.

And to complete the spectrum, there were activists who were bitter that some atrocities were being ignored, and consequently delegitimized. One group felt disrespected after learning that their group’s exhibition space was adjacent to the rest rooms.

Then there were critics who had ideologically opposed the architecture design, likening it to a modern Tower of Babel. But veteran planner Antoine Predock defended the symbolism behind his vision:

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights is rooted in humanity, making visible in the architecture the fundamental commonality of humankind-a symbolic apparition of ice, clouds and stone set in a field of sweet grass. Carved into the earth and dissolving into the sky on the Winnipeg horizon, the abstract ephemeral wings of a white dove embrace a mythic stone mountain of 450 million year old Tyndall limestone in the creation of a unifying and timeless landmark for all nations and cultures of the world.

museum entrance

A dozen galleries stretch between alabaster ramps acting as spears of light connecting the void of black-washed canyon walls.

ramps and roads

The alabaster bridges provide needed tranquility time to survive the intensity of the previous gallery and avoid potential human-condition overload.

The galleries are immense shadow boxes for interpretive technology…

1st nation basket

meaningful art installations…

ceramic tapestry Bistro sculpture

red dresses

animated graphics…

queer wedding cake

Human rights time line

and traditional prose…

Quotes from Weisel and Frank

Primo Levi

All human beings are...

In hindsight, I would start the “trek of travesty” at the top, and wind my way down the “ramps of reflection”–much like the Guggenheim Museum in NYC…

ramp

until reaching the Garden of Contemplation on level 3, where hexagonal rocks of basalt buttress placid pools of water,

Garden

catching surreal reflections,

Garden of Contemplation

under a towering canopy of limestone, steel, and glass.

roof structure

elevator towers

On the other hand, by cruising the museum “upside down”, visitors may lose sight of the painful journey endured by the many who struggled for acceptance and equality. And skipping the Tower of Hope is a missed opportunity to circle the observation deck, with its expansive view of Riel Esplanade and more.

Riel Esplanade

Winnipeg is a city in transition seeking to compete on a national stage, while coming to terms with disaffected Aboriginal people who represent 10% of the local population. Fortunately, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights can be called upon to remind us of the importance of awareness, critical thinking, and reconciliation.

Turning Points for Humanity