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. 

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Zooming through space center triggers many memories

When someone mentions the space program to me, I think of NASA. I think of the Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, Mission Control, and the phrase, "Houston, we have a problem."

Until recently, I never thought of Huntsville, Alabama.

Stage 3 of a Saturn 5 rocket: not a mock-up.
Oh, I'd heard of Huntsville. But until I visited the northern Alabama city, I really had no clue what a huge role it played in the development and success of the U.S. space program.

That changed after spending an evening at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

It was Huntsville, Alabama that Wernher von Braun moved to after leaving Germany following the end of World War II. And that was where he actually worked on the rockets that eventually helped the U.S. win the race to the moon.

I found out all about this - and more - at this wonderful museum, that includes a world-renowned, hands-on Space Camp for both youngsters and adults.

Apollo 16 space capsule.
My schedule would not allow me to spend more than a few hours touring the facility, although I could easily have spent more time there. 

As it was, I got to see Stage 3 of a real Saturn V rocket (one of only three still in existence), I got to pretend I was John Glenn and sit in a mock-up of a Mercury 7 space capsule, I played a simulation game that saw me crash-land a space shuttle, and - this is the piece de resistance - I saw the actual Apollo16 space capsule that landed on the moon.

While wandering around, viewing the exhibits, snapping photos, talking with the docents that were there to answer any questions visitors had, I couldn't help but think of my dad.

Although we're Canadian, Dad was a huge believer in the space program. I remember when I was in Grade 1, my dad chose to keep me home from school to watch the launch of Friendship 7, to see John Glenn become the first astronaut to orbit the earth in a space capsule.

My dad reasoned that this event was to become a monumental part of our history, and he wanted me to recognize that and see it - "see it" both in terms of watching history happen on live TV as well as in terms of seeing what it meant in the bigger picture of our existence on this planet.

Of course, when the Apollo space capsule finally touched down on the moon and we saw a live broadcast from the moon that summer night in July, 1969, it was just as big an event - maybe bigger. 
Memorial bust: July 20, 1969.

We pulled the portable black and white TV out onto the patio and ran an extension cable into the house and cable hook-up in the wall. We sat out late that Sunday night, eating sandwiches, sipping drinks, and soaking up history.

It was more than just history for my dad, too.

When he was a kid back in the 1930s and '40s, reading Buck Rogers comics and Tom Swift sci-fi adventure books and watching Flash Gordon at the movie theatre every Saturday, he told anyone who would listen that our future was in the stars - one day, we would actually be able to fly off to other planets.

Of course, everyone pooh-poohed that and he took a lot of ribbing, even into the 1950s. None of his friends believed it could happen.

So it was certainly a huge day for him, when man landed on the moon.

It was a giant step for mankind - and an important milestone for my father, that day, too.

He didn't rub it in to anyone, didn't say, "I told you so." He just enjoyed the moment.

And he would have enjoyed the moments I spent at the Space and Rocket Center, too.

In fact, he probably was.

Hey, Mr. Spaceman...

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Beware of these dastardly denizens while camping in provincial parks

The sounds of nature and the outdoors are unmatched in their beauty – and they also cannot compete against the raucous sounds of man-made noise.
Earlier this summer, I spent two days camping in nearby Golden Ears Provincial Park, just about an hour’s drive east from Vancouver.

Let me say we’re very fortunate to have such a beautiful park, such natural beauty and wilderness so close to one of Canada’s largest three cities. I thoroughly enjoyed hiking on its trails, canoeing on Alouette Lake, just getting out-of-doors, away from the city.
Let's go camping! Just watch out for weird species...

Unfortunately, some people cannot bear to leave the city behind. And some choose to ignore rules that are implemented for everyone’s safety and comfort.

Rather than rail against humanity in general, I thought it would be interesting to identify the types of odd and often contrary beings one sees when visiting provincial parks like Golden Ears.

If you see any of these weird and inconsiderate species, avoid them if at all possible (and if possible, report them to a park ranger).

Caninus releasus. These creatures let their dogs run loose, off-leash, without any care for the rules. In just about every national and provincial park, dogs are supposed to be leashed. This is for the protection of the park, and the creatures that live there. It’s also for protection of dogs and their people. Dogs can hurt the smaller animals like birds and small mammals that live in the park. And if they happen to disturb a bear, it could cause dire consequences for the dog, even for the human, and unfortunately, often the ultimate demise of the bear. 

Although It’s very clearly spelled out on signs, online, and in park literature, when I was hiking on two different trails and even in the campsite areas, there were far more dogs off-leash than on. Too many of these C. releasus types think they have control of their dog with their voices – but they don’t!! It may only take a second or two for disaster to occur, before a dog responds to its owner’s voice (and often they are out of sight on a trail). I for one, don’t feel comfortable walking on a trail where a big Rottweiler or similar dog is running free.

Cyclistes ignoramusi. Like the C. releasus creatures, these types feel free to ignore signs that say “NO CYCLING ON THIS TRAIL.” There are specific trails for cyclists in the park, yet members of this particular specie choose to blatantly ignore such postings and cycle merrily down the path that is obviously NOT supposed to be used for cycling. Wonder how they’d feel if I rode a motorcycle down their city cycling paths?


These are the ONLY kinds of dogs that should be off-leash in a provincial park.

Flamus controllus. With all the dry weather and recent fires in B.C., not just this summer, but in past summers, you’d think people would be a little careful about campfires – particularly when there is a ban on in the park. Yet while hiking on one of the trails, I smelled wood smoke from a fire burning somewhere nearby, which tells me a member of the F. controllus species was in the area. 

A sub-species of this animal is F. controllus gassy-goofus; this sub-species brings portable gas-powered “fireplaces” to the great north woods to enjoy its cozy glow at night – which is allowed. However, they turn it up higher than allowed by park rules, turning it down low when they know a ranger is patrolling the area, then turning it back up when the coast is clear.

Loudus inconsideratus. This species demonstrates a variety of behaviours, but they’re all consistent in two respects: they are loud and they don’t care if they bother others in surrounding campsites. Sometimes it’s a loud radio (why go to the woods to escape the city – then blare your music?), other times its loud talking well after midnight, sometimes it’s just banging around, doing stuff that makes noise louder than necessary that prevents others from sleeping or just enjoying the quiet of the outdoors.

Pinheaded powerboatians. These are the types that zoom up and down a lake in their powerboats, creating wakes with no regard for people in canoes or kayaks and the potential danger created by the unstable movement of their craft due to the unexpected waves from the motorboats. Their motors also sound annoying.

Despite signs indicating "No cycling,"
we encountered cyclists on this trail.
Clueless camerus shutterbuggus. You’re trying to line up a shot of a rare animal or bird, you patiently, quietly, and slowly approach it, trying to get the best angle and not frighten it away, sitting, waiting for that perfect moment when you can press the shutter to capture an image … then this species – hailing from the city and with no clue as to how to approach wildlife – stomps right over toward the subject on a direct line, and invariably in front of your camera trying to get a shot, scaring the critter away before you can get your shot. 

They’re characterized by their use of a camera phone or cheap point-and-shoot and loud, colourful clothing that brands them as being from the city as well as brand new to any kind of nature photography. 

They are often also accompanied by one or more Screaming spoiledrottenoids, smaller versions of themselves who also do everything they can to ruin the shot and the moment.

REMEMBER: If you do see any of these weird species, try your best not to shoot them, stab them, or otherwise kill them, because unfortunately, they are never in season.

Although it sure would be nice if they did declare even one weekend to be open-season on any of these annoying animals…

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Memoir much more than just a book about birding and travel

Author Dan Koeppel had me at "A Father, A Son and a Lifelong Obsession." That's the subtitle for his book, To See Every Bird On Earth.

The book was published in 2005, I got it in 2007, but I only just read it this past winter.

I have to fight off the tendency to think, "Wow, why did I wait so long?" But I also believe - on my good days - that everything happens for a reason, everything comes at the right time.

The book is about much more
than counting birds.
I felt a connection with this book, and its author Dan Koeppel, just a few pages into the main part of the book. The prologue intrigued me, simply because it's set in one of my favourite places in the world, the Amazon. I've been fortunate enough to have paddled there and viewed parrots there on a few occasions, so any book that starts off with a segment about seeing birds there stands to keep me interested for at least a few chapters.

The fact that travel would be involved in trying to fulfill the goal described in the title is also a good way to keep me reading.

But what really hooked me - what really made me pour over the pages each night in my library in the middle of winter, where good books to read are a must-have - what really kept me coming back was the human interest story.

In reading the story of his father Richard's life - his birth, youth and adulthood - I was struck by how much it paralleled my own father's life. Not exactly the same, but certainly with enough similarities - and set in approximately the same time period - that it became a bit of an emotional journey for me, as much as it must have been for Koeppel writing it.

I could feel the anguish and frustration his father must have felt, with strict, expectant Jewish parents that thought the only way their son to live a purposeful life was to become a doctor. And get married. And have children. The typical American-dream of the mid-20th century.

His father, though, felt a passion for bird-watching early in his adolescence, and that passion never completely waned. It may have taken a backseat at times, but was always present. Richard Koeppel really would liked to have gone to university to become an ornithologist, but succumbed to parental pressure, studied to become a doctor, got married and had two sons.

But he never became truly happy.

His happiest moments were spent birding; his happiest period in his life was spent travelling around Europe on birding trips while stationed as a military doctor at a U.S. army base in West Germany during the height of the Cold War.

That was also where his his parents' marriage began to disintegrate.

Eventually, they moved back to America, life continued on, but the author's parents eventually split up and went their separate ways, another situation I can certainly relate to.

Koeppel describes some of the trials he went through as a child of split parents, than as an adult in starting his career as a journalist. Again, while not the same experiences I had, eerily similar to what I went through in my life, which resulted in my feeling a great deal of empathy for the author.

The one constant throughout all the unhappiness and struggles was the birding. Richard Koeppel continues to travel around the world recording numbers of birds seen, meeting some of the top-notch experts and authorities in the world of bird-watching and getting ever closer to a huge milestone touched on in the prologue.

Father and son, from the book jacket.
The book does a good job of explaining this world to the reader while also keeping one hooked with the emotion of human interest that always simmers throughout. Koeppel is to be applauded the way he pulls no punches in revealing what went on in his family, all the while doing it in a sensitive, non-sensational manner. But the warts are exposed. As are the good sides, as well.

I'll leave it at that, because I don't want to spoil anything. I won't tell you whether it has a happy ending or a sad ending to the tale...that's all a matter of perspective, anyway.

But it is an excellent read, whether you are a birder, a traveller or just someone interested in reading a memoir full of emotion and honesty, one that can help the reader realize we are all human with human failings.

We can begin to approach a touch of the divine in striving to, and sometimes succeed in, overcoming those failings. And getting right back up to try again, when we do fall down.

This bird - the Marvelous spatuletail - was recorded in the Peruvian amazon; 
Koeppel's book sets sail in the Brazilian Amazon.