Thursday, January 29, 2015

Can't ski? Another murderous press trip in Colorado provides other options

If you didn't read my previous book review about Cynthia Baxter's travel-writing sleuth Mallory Marlowe, you might think I've just returned from a horrible fam tour from the Rocky Mountain state.
Despite what the cover depicts,
this is not a
'Pooch of the Powderhorn' story

That's not the case, though, as you've probably surmised by now.

No, this is another mystery story revolving around the adventures of New York-based travel writer Mallory Marlowe, who just happens to have the ability to stumble into a murder-mystery on every assignment.

This time, in Too Rich and Too Dead, she's off to a Colorado ski resort to write an article about the kinds of activities and adventures that visitors can enjoy when they prefer not to ski down the mountains. (While that may sound far-fetched, it's not; I've sold paddling stories to Ski Canada magazine, and that sometimes surprises people.)

Oh, and by the way - this was published before pot became legal in the state, so if you read it, keep that in mind.

Part of Marlowe's assignment involves interviewing celebrity health-guru and spa owner Carly Cassidy Berman, a former high school classmate. Before she can complete her assignment though, the celeb turns up dead in a mud bath at the spa.

Then the fun begins.

Mallory is sucked into trying to solve the mystery while trying to still complete the research for her travel article. Along the way, she gets entangled in not one, but two potential romances - one with a suspect, and the other with Trevor Pierce, her boss and editor of The Good Life magazine.

He shows up worried about her when news of the murder reaches New York, and given her previous adventures in Florida, he wants to make sure nothing happens to her. Or that's his story.

There are plenty of red herrings, and Baxter does a good job of conveying what a travel writer on assignment often has to go through to get a story completed.

Again, the depiction of a travel writer's life is a bit idealized; personally, I'd love to have her gig, myself: one guaranteed week-long trip each month, a spot in the magazine guaranteed, all expenses paid, and a good chunk of coin when the story is published.

Travel writers' Heaven, in other words.

The protagonist does manage to solve it and gets her magazine piece completed, as well.

Like the previous novel, there is also a section at the back with "travel articles" that contain information about the destinations and activities mentioned in the story, a nice added extra.

Since writing and publishing this second book in the series (2009), Cynthia Baxter has not written any more. The last book published by Bantam Books in her other series, Reigning Cats and Dogs, hit the markets in 2010. Her Facebook page has not posted anything in a few years, so it looks like she's not writing any more.

It's a pity; I would loved to have read more Murder Packs a Suitcase stories from her.

See? There's plenty to do in Colorado besides ski.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Ghostly tales, aquatic tails await paddlers on Grand Manan

Getting their "seal" of approval.
We were surrounded … heads popped up in a different spot every few seconds. It was their element. 

All we could do was watch.

Watch, we did. Trying to focus a camera for a good close-up of a seal was another matter, though. Just when you thought you were set, sploosh! it dove, resulting in another excellent picture of a waterspout.

Still, no one was complaining. For the first time in three days, there was no rain or fog. Two days earlier, eight kayaks had set out in pouring rain from Grand Manan Island's North Head, heading for our first night's campsite: Ross Island.

Ross Island was the site of the first permanent settlement (1784) in this Bay of Fundy archipelago. The island is uninhabited today, although the original settlement's stone foundations are still visible. When we first landed, the present concerned us much more than the past. We were wet, hungry, tired and grumpy.

Adventure High guides Derek and Jen lifted our soggy spirits with a hearty meal of fresh haddock, rice and veggies.

A ghost story from Derek lifted our spirits further. The ghost of a former slaver supposedly haunts the island, cursed by a slave he threw overboard in chains to avoid being caught by boarding authorities.

Jen, our guide, checks on the paddling pack.
A ghostless night gave way to another sunless day, while the rain gave way to thick fog. An ugly weather forecast dictated a day trip along Ross Island through Cheney Passage, returning to our first campsite rather than paddle to a new site.

Paddling south along the coast, we watched cormorants, gulls, bald eagles and terns flew along the wave crests and the coastline. Sometimes the fog would clear a little, but most times it hung thick in the air, limiting visibility to 100 metres or less.

A few hours into our journey, an abandoned lighthouse materialized almost from nowhere, looming over us spectrally in the fog. A short paddle past it brought us to a beach littered with more spectres: the flotsam and jetsam of several shipwrecks. A leisurely lunch followed, giving way to a leisurely paddle back to our campsite. A supper of scallops, pasta and cheesecake surpassed the previous night's repast.

This lighthouse is just a ghost of its former self.
The next day we paddled north under overcast skies, cruising between Great Duck and Nantucket Islands, the former known for its automated lighthouse, the latter for its resident bull, which the owner allows to run free on the island.

Passing around the north end of Low Duck Island, we spied seals on the shore. At our approach, they slid into the water. We spent an hour drifting, watching them swim around our kayaks, while they watched us. It is hard to say who was more interested, the seals or us …

After lunch we headed northwest, homeward bound. Two hour's paddling landed us back at North Head - just in time to see the clouds disperse and the sun shine for the first time in three days … just as our trip was ending.

Oh, well. It would have been too hot paddling under a blazing sun, anyway  …

Seals bob-bob-bobbing along.

(This story was originally published in Ski Canada's Outdoor Guide).

Monday, December 22, 2014

What do paddlers do when water freezes? Go mushing, of course!

Mushing down the trail in K-Country. (Snowy Owl photo)
Unless you're lucky enough to live in an area where you can paddle year-round, there always comes a time when a paddler has to hang up his paddle for the winter and wait for the spring, hoping to avoid cabin fever.

Although Vancouver does provide some opportunity for year-round paddling, it can be uncomfortable for many (and a bit more risky, since spilling out of a kayak into the open ocean during winter poses the serious threat of hypothermia.)

Sometimes you can get around cabin fever by flying south. But that's not always possible in terms of time or money.

But, you're itching to get outdoors, and enjoy the woods and mountains in a similar fashion to what you do in a canoe or kayak during the warmer months.

The solution?

Trade in your canoe for a dog-sled.

Now, while many of us own watercraft, running dogs with a dogsled is an entirely different type of animal (pun intended). If you're not committed to working with, and looking after, a team of dogs 12 months of the year, your best bet is to hook up with a dogsled touring company.

I was lucky enough to do that when I lived in Calgary.

And herein lies the tale of how I made like Jack London in the wilds of K-Country...

Once you glide along the snow, the wind whipping your face and snow flying behind you, you get the distinct feeling that mushing is the only way to travel in winter. If you’re passing through the Spray Valley, one of the Rocky Mountains’ most pristine and beautiful areas, you'll be convinced even more.

I was able to enjoy just such an experience, during a short day trip with Snowy Owl Sled Dog Tours, a Canmore-based company whose tours run anywhere from a few hours to a few days.

Thanks to the dogs, any dog sledding trip always begins with a high level of excitement, whether it’s just an hour-long jaunt or a two-day excursion. The animals are bred and trained to run, and they love nothing more than hitting the trail to burn off their energy.

Before they hit the trail, they’re worse than a group of kids at Christmas, waiting to be given the go-ahead to rush out to the tree and start opening their presents. They strain at their harnesses, yipping and yapping, as if the only thing in the entire world worth doing involves running down a winter trail.

The dogs are not the only ones that have to be prepared. Snowy Owl clients receive a half-hour of instruction about the dogs and driving sleds. Once the dogs and the people are ready, then the fun begins.

Hmmm...that mushing looks ...
Clients have two options for any trip: a more relaxed mode, riding on the sled comfortably wrapped up in a blanket while a guide drives; or, they drive the sled, for whatever distance with which they are comfortable.

“We like to include people in the driving,” says owner Connie Arsenault, “so they get what we get from the experience of mushing through the back country.”

You don’t have to be a fitness fanatic to try your hand at driving. Although a certain level of fitness helps, even couch potatoes can experience the thrill of driving a dog team, as Snowy Owl will adjust their tours based on people’s fitness levels. Of course, the guides can always spell clients when they tire.

Driving sled dog team can be an exhilarating - and humbling - experience. You may not realize just how fast you’re going until you actually fall off a sled moving at full speed, and sit helplessly in the snow, watching your team continue down the trail without you.

On this particular trip, I avoided that pitfall, choosing to ride rather than drive, so I could absorb the scenery and snap some photos as we slipped down the trail.

No other winter sport compares to the feeling of mushing. Cross-country skiing is invigorating fun, but because of the amount of energy you have to spend just skiing, you may not always enjoy the full beauty of your surroundings unless you stop. Snowmobiling lies at the other end of the spectrum. Everything whips by too fast from the back of a gas-powered vehicle, and the noise is distracting. And while I really enjoy snowshoeing, it's much more contemplative, there is less adrenalin, and you just can't cover as much ground as a dogsled can.

Mushing combines the best of both worlds: enough speed, (but not too much), combined with the silence of winter wilderness, broken only by the swish of the sled runners along the trail and the panting of the dogs. It also offers the unique joy of interacting with the dogs.

Snowy Owl offers two-hour, half-day, full day and evening or moonlight tours as well as an overnight trip. On all the tours, the guides try to impart a love and respect for the wilderness setting in which the tours take place.

"Wilderness teaches lessons," says Connie. "It treats us all as equals. If we are arrogant, we need to be humbled, and the wilderness can do that. It's our teacher, reaching out to the natural element in all of us to teach us what we need to learn."

That philosophy parallels Native North American philosophy and spirituality. Snowy Owl builds many aspects of traditional Native culture into its tours.

All tours start off with an introduction that credits Native culture with the origin of dog sledding. The educational aspect goes beyond simply hearing about how Native cultures lived day-to-day. Depending on what tour you sign up for, you may get to meet all the dogs at the Snowy Owl kennel, helping to clean and feed them, load them into the truck and eventually harness them to the sleds.

One program - an evening affair, "Legend of the Snow Moon," - educates guests about the way the Native and Inuit cultures viewed the winter sky.

On the overnight trips, entitled "The Ghost of Fortune Mountain," guests sleep in Sioux-style tipis, and experience Native story telling around the campfire. The "ghost" in that tour's title stems from the fact guests often hear - but don't see - wolves on these trips. Natives referred to wolves as ghosts, because while their howling lets you know they are there, you very rarely see them.

Even the food contains a Native flavour. On the longer day trips, guests enjoy a traditional Canadian Native campfire lunch that includes foods like Native bannock and deli smoked beef (a modern compromise, since they don't have time to catch and smoke wild game meat) toasted over an open campfire. Buffalo stew is available on some trips.

On our shorter trip, though, we finished off our day with hot chocolate and home-baked cookies around a campfire on the snow clad shore of Spray Lake. As I glanced out across the snow, I’m already thinking about returning to do one of the longer trips, so I can perhaps hear the howl of the “ghosts” reverberate throughout the winter night … .

Mushing through the mountains (video by Snowy Owl Sled Dog Tours)

(a slightly different version of this story was originally published in the March 2003 issue of Westjet Airlines magazine)

Monday, December 1, 2014

Where eagles fly, we can see their view with Sea-to-Sky Gondolas

Howe Sound, as seen from Sea to Sky's Summit Lodge.
As someone who best loves to experience the outdoors via paddling, it can be a bit of challenge to get out and about on adventures when the cold weather comes calling. 

Mind you, in B.C.'s Lower Mainland, that's later than it is in most of the rest of Canada.

One can always head south to paddle in warmer climes, but that requires booking flights and organized planning, not to mention at least a week's worth of time.

But there are plenty of other non-paddling adventures to be had in and around Vancouver, day-trips that provide adventures in the outdoors.

One of those outings is fairly new to the area. The Sea-to-Sky Gondola in Squamish, B.C., just opened to the public last summer. 

I had a chance to experience it myself for the first time last week.

I'm not fond of heights, so there was a little trepidation on my part before climbing into the gondola that would take us up the side of Habrich Mountain to Summit Lodge. Watching the car in front of us zoom up suddenly reminded me of my first trip in a helicopter - no wings, just a quick vertical rise into the air.

Less than a minute into the ride, though, I was too busy enjoying the view and trying to take photos to think about that nagging fear of heights.

And then came the eagles.

I spotted the first one as it swooped past us, overhead, from the mountain peak to our left. It was huge, and my first thought was, "Golden eagle!" It was that big. Then I realized it was probably a juvenile bald eagle - they are larger than adults, and lack the white head feathers that characterize the species.


Up, up, and away!

Looking skyward, I spotted two more, then another, as they soared back and forth across the mountain paths.

This, of course, is the time of year when bald eagles gather in the thousands along the valley near Brackendale to feast on the salmon as they continue their spawning run upstream in the Squamish River. 

We quickly climbed past them on our way up the side of the mountain, watching other gondolas slide past us on their journey down the mountain.

When we got to the top following our 10-minute ascent, another treat awaited us: the Sky Pilot Suspension Bridge. And no, the bridge is not named after the beer - rather, the beer is named after one of the main mountain peaks in this area that you can view once you cross the bridge from the lodge. (Although they do have Sky Pilot on tap in the lodge).

A quick trek across the bridge takes you to a platform that provides a beautiful view of Howe Sound (and Watts Point, where George Vancouver first encountered members of the Squamish Nation)

The spot also serves as the start of the Spirit Trail, one of many trails the public can walk from the lodge. This particular trail they plan to leave just for walking; other trails will be used for snowshoeing, once they get enough of the white stuff down.

We enjoyed two different views of Sky Pilot and its neighbour, Co-pilot Mountain, then it was back to the lodge for lunch.


Trudging across the suspension bridge - to a wonderful view.

The plan was to stay a little longer, but because of an incoming weather front that was going to sock everything in and force the closure of the gondola, we had to pack up and head down the mountain.

But there are plenty of Christmas programs planned for the next month at the lodge, so if you go up there, don't be surprised if you bump into me, taking in the festivities.

Want to see some more images from my trip up the mountain? Check out my Facebook photo album.

Monday, November 24, 2014

When you go looking for parrot photos, the birds don't always co-operate

As we approached the landing that would allow us to penetrate the jungle shore of the Rio Napo, two parrots winged their way overhead, en route to the same clay lick where we were headed, the same spot where we could hear hundreds of other squawking parrots congregating as part of their morning
Dawn along the Rio Shiripuno.
We heard parrots - we just couldn't see them.

I hoped this journey would help me realize an ambition I’d failed to realize the previous week, when I’d paddled down the Rio Shiripuno through Ecuador’s Amazon rainforest.

As stated elsewhere in this space, I have two main passions in my life: paddling and parrots. I live with two African grey parrots, and I have spent many summers canoeing or kayaking since I dipped my first paddle into a pond at a summer youth camp, 40 years ago.

I took this trip to combine the two of them: I’d be able to paddle a section of a remote river in the wild Amazon rainforest to see – and hopefully photograph – parrots in their natural habitat.

The paddling trip covered a section of the river that cut through the territory of the Huaorani, one of the last indigenous Amazon tribes to encounter western civilization. Their first contact came with North American missionaries in 1956.

I spent five days kayaking on the river, traveling with guides from EcoAdventour, a local outfit that worked with U.S.-based Adventure Life  as well as the Huaorani chief, Moi. Two hours onto the river, we saw some macaws fly overhead, so my hopes were high that we would see plenty of parrots – and take plenty of photos.

We saw numerous other wild birds during our river trip, including military macaws, blue-headed parrots, and Amazons. We also saw various other species of birds: toucans perched overhead in treetops; kingfishers zipping up and down the river; a pair of nightjars in their nest, right near our second night’s campsite, herons at various points along the river; and a solitary harpy eagle sitting high above the river in the crown of a tree.

However, paddling a kayak - even a touring kayak on a relatively placid river - and trying to get in position to take good photos of birds proved to be mutually exclusive activities most of the time, so I did not capture any good bird shots, and had very few good “parrot photo ops” during the expedition.


Following the river trip, I’d spent a day exploring the cloud forest of the country’s transitional zone between the high Andes and the lowland jungle. Cloud forest vegetation is sparser, and more sturdy than lush, but still much thicker than what we would see at a similar elevation in Canada

This transitional zone is home to numerous bird species, including the Andean cock of the rock, many hummingbird species, and in some areas, parrots.

However, I was still not able to get close enough to take any pictures of parrots on my trip through the cloud forest. A slight change in our travel plans arose, resulting in an opportunity to go back into the rainforest and visit a parrot lick. Yeah, I jumped at it.

A half-hour plane trip, two-hour bus ride and three-hour river excursion via motorized dugout canoe brought us to a jungle trail on Ecuador’s Rio Napo. A 15-minute hike followed by a half-hour paddle in a small dugout canoe across the jungle lake Laguna Garzacocha (literally, “Heron Lake” in the native Quechua language) landed us at La Selva Jungle Lodge, located on a bluff overlooking the lake.

We spent that evening exploring the area around the lodge during a night hike through the jungle. We spotted a small caiman (a cousin to the crocodile), and a nine-banded armadillo. But, I was here to see (and photograph) parrots. Take me to the birds!

This caiman was about three feet long.
Some grow up to 12 feet.
The next day came early enough, with a 5 a.m. wake-up call. I traveled with my own personal guide, Omar, paddling and hiking back to the Rio Napo, then headed upriver by motorized dugout for 15 minutes to the parrot lick. As I walked the short path between the river and the lick, the sound of hundreds of parrots squawking grew louder, as my excitement mounted.

I quickly reached the blind and after setting up quickly, I sat and watched them flit around through the treetops, squawking and whistling, interacting with other birds.

Omar identified four parrot species: Mealy amazons (Amazona farinosa), yellow-crowned amazons (A. ochrocephala), blue-headed parrots (Pionus menstruus) and dusky-headed parakeets (Aratinga weddellii).

I watched a pair groom each other on a branch; on another tree, one parrot chased a second one away from what was obviously, a favored perch; elsewhere, a lone parrot groomed himself, then shook his tail, reminding me of my own companion African grey parrots’ behavior back home.

Two hours later, the flock winged away to new adventures, leaving the trees empty and silent. The birds never did land on the lick, so I still did not have the good close-up shots of wild parrots I desired.

As we headed back to the lodge, a pair of macaws glided high overhead, teasingly out of camera range, and the thought struck me that perhaps the enjoyment of simply watching wild parrots interact in their natural environment was enough, perhaps the pictures did not seem to matter so much … .

Besides, since I didn’t get the shots I wanted, I have a good excuse to go back ….

This is what a busy parrot lick looks like - not my experience at Yasuni.

 (This trip, taken a few years ago, was the first time I combined parrots with paddling - in some ways, the inspiration for this blog's title. Different versions of this adventure have appeared previously in different magazines, including the Georgia Straight and Parrots magazine.)

Friday, November 7, 2014

Where tired bats hang their hats, unusual beauty awaits you

With the switch back to standard time and the forward march into a gray and drizzly November, it seems like fall is already gone - or close to it - and winter stares us in the face.

Wasn't it just a few weeks ago that I was enjoying the warm weather of the autumnal equinox weekend? Oops...a check of the calendar tells me it was actually closer to two months ago.

At the time and in the place I spent two days visiting - northeastern Alabama - the leaves had not even started to turn colour, yet. 

To the batcave!
No matter. I spent a good portion of the first day in a place where no leaves could be seen.

I went down into the bowels of the earth, at Cathedral Cavern State Park.

And as we followed our guide into the huge maw of the cave entrance (you can only enter as part of a guided tour), I completely forgot to say, "To the Batcave, Robin!"

That's okay. Adam West and Burt Ward probably would have been intimidated going into this cave. And I don't recall Christian Bale ever repeating that three-word phrase.

The cave is huge.

And it's full of all kinds of chambers, an underground river running far below the walkway, indications of previous use by both Native Americans and white settlers - and a plethora of cool rock formations. Stalactites. Stalagmites. Waterfalls flowing down rock faces. Rocks that look like an evil monkey head - or Marlon Brando's head in the movie Apocalypse, Now!

Wandering along the parks-built (very safe) pathway through the cavern reminded me of images I'd seen in the original album jacket of Rick Wakeman's Journey to the Centre of the Earth

The variety was endless. And every time you'd look back at a formation you'd seen a minute ago, it seemed to minute it would remind you of the inside of some horrible demonic monster's maw - the next, some alien planet's landscape. But as grotesque and odd as they may look, there are also incredibly, uniquely beautiful.

Your call: evil monkey skull -
or Marlon Brando head?
I certainly understood why the park's haunted cave tours are so popular in late October.

While walking the mile or so back into the cave, we could see where a former owner of the cave, Jay Gurley had built paths along ledges to access the cave. He owned it and ran it as a tourist attraction from 1959 until 1974. The state eventually bought it in 1987 and turned into a safer natural wonder for visitors to enjoy by redoing the man-made infrastructure.

We also spotted a cave salamander, although he was so tiny, it was difficult to get a good shot of him in less-than-ideal light conditions.

Shortly after that, my ears picked up a squeaking sound up toward the ceiling high above us - and sure enough, there was a bat. (No robin, though).

I could have wandered around looking at the formations all day, looking for more bats (we spotted a few more on our way back to the entrance), but other attractions beckoned. 

At least, that's our has nothing to with the symbol featuring a certain flying quadruped of the order Chiroptera that blazed across the sky as we emerged from the cave...


A brief view of the cavern and its formations.

For more cave photos, visit my Facebook album, "Caverns, Cascades and Canyons"

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

All aboard! Leaving Huntsville for Memphis and the Mississippi!

One of the cool things about Huntsville, Alabama is its contrasts.

Take for example, transportation - or at least, transportation from a tourist perspective.

During a recent visit there, I had a chance to spend some time at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, featuring displays and history about as modern a form of transportation as you can get (although they still don't have that transporter beam technology perfected, yet...)
Chugging back into the past...

I toured that facility my first day there.

A few days later, I stepped back into the past about 150 years: I spent part of an afternoon enjoying the displays at the Huntsville Railway Depot and Museum.

The depot was built in 1860, and that building - the entire town, for that matter - played a key role during the American Civil War (1861-65).

At the time, the Southern Railway was the only railway line in America that ran all the way from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River. So you can easily see why the side that controlled that line had a decided transportation and logistical edge. The other main form of transportation back then would have involved using rivers - and traveling from the Atlantic to the Mississippi by boat could be quite a paddle.

The Union army captured the depot in 1862, without really much of a battle. They immediately converted part of the depot into a prison to hold the Confederate (CSA) army P.O.W.'s there until the end of the war. It was also used as a base for gathering supplies for the western theatre of military operations by the Union.

View of an old train from a new "train" 
while riding around the museum grounds.

While there was little bloodshed at the depot itself, many battles were fought up and down the line in the region for control of the line, which the Union managed to hang on to for the war's duration.

These days, visitors can view some old steam trains from the era, explore the depot - and even see some of the original graffiti written on the walls inside the third floor rooms of the depot by the captive CSA soldiers (authenticated by historians).
While I rode a "train" there,
I didn't get a chance to ride a handcar

You'll also find a mock-up of an old ticket booth and passenger waiting room, complete with mannequins wearing period outfits.

There are also several exhibits depicting life as it was lived back in the latter half of the 19th century.

Outside sits a caboose, that, in addition to being part of the exhibit, is used these days for children's birthday parties.

Visitors can also hop on board a small train and "ride the rails" around the park grounds past old buildings and trains. (A real lover of train travel, this was my favourite part of the visit!)

Although the facility is a museum now, it was not that long ago - not quite 50 years - that it was still used as an active passenger station, finally winding down that function in 1968. The line, which continued to transport people and goods after the War Between the States ended, saw a sharp rise in passenger traffic during World War II. However, by the early 1960s, as the plane started to become the favoured mode of travel, use of the line by passengers declined steadily and significantly, leading eventually to its closure.

However, these days, when you board the museum train and hear the "engineer" parrot the conductors' call of "All aboard!" from bygone days, you can close your eyes and, maybe, for a moment or two, pretend you're back in the 1860s, riding the rails to another Alabama adventure...

Want to see more photos from the museum? Visit All Aboard! at Facebook.