Snorkeling in Roatán last month I swam out through a fairly narrow channel between some sharp corral, explored for about 20 minutes, then had a few moments when even though I could see the shore I couldn’t see a safe way back to it through the dangerous maze a foot below the surface.
There is a random photo that I took while snorkeling of a boat sitting upon an orb of sea. I call it “random” because I had my GoPro in 1 pic/sec interval mode and the photo was a total fluke, but it captured the Caribbean as a perfect lens-curved arc with awesome sunlit blues and a boat sitting framed in perfect 1/3 aspect. If my arm wasn’t in the corner, it would be a contestant for something even more awesome.
Life aboard a cruise ship is a mixed bag of transient pleasures.
On one hand, it is transient because you are pressing across an unfathomable sea at a pace just slightly faster than a swift bicycle ride, largely oblivious to the notion that however unlikely, the failure of this monument of nautical technology could result in your own peril. Having such things pointed out to you, in obsessive detail, is not uncommon when traveling with an imaginative ten-year old.
On the other hand, transience comes in the form of an experience that often seems as trivial as spending a few hours at a well-stocked hotel. You eat a little too much. You drink expensive cocktails and overpriced beer. You swim in a body of tepid freshwater floating in a literal sea of saltwater. You take in some off-off-off-Broadway entertainment. You eat more. You bask in the sunshine and then get play dress up to promenade down the faux promenade. Then you got to sleep and repeat for six more days.
Among this transient adventure, mixed amidst the carefully plotted pleasures are a trio of carefully plotted destinations.
At three ports, passengers are invited to debark from the ship. The gleaming white hull cozies up to an impossible concrete pier. A pair of steel gangs tongue solid land. The velvet rope is dropped. Your card is scanned. You identification is confirmed. And then you wander casually, touristy, into a completely foreign country wearing nothing but flip-flops and a bathing suit, carrying your camera in one hand and a your passport in the other.
To see it as anything but imperialistically surreal takes a special kind of mental filter with which I’m apparently not equipped.
In Roatán, Honduras we took passage on a cramped minibus and toured the pot-holed streets leading to a beach resort where we ate and snorkeled and fended off dozens of folks attempting to sell us monkey photos or braided hair or cigars.
In Costa Maya we walked down the kilometer-long concrete pier to faux Mexican village whose sole existence seemed to hinge on the regular arrival of giant white ships who each day would barf out their hungry american passengers to buy diamonds and have their feet nibbled by fish or to swim with dolphins so they could pay twenty-five dollars for a photograph of the moment.
We bought little and soaked in the atmosphere in a manner that could be considered barely more than a light misting of cultural integration. We were there, if only temporarily, if only long enough to capture some photos and record some video. Cruise ghosts in the Caribbean sunshine.
Ten days after debarking from our second family cruise vacation, stepping back ashore onto the south bank of Texas, slowly making our way through customs, airports, and a yearly allotment of seasons in a single twenty-four hour span, I realize I haven’t written much about our little adventure.
I usually write something.
In November 2017, we found ourselves lost at sea. Not physically, of course. Physically we were aboard a 155,889 gross tonnage, 14 story, 5000 passenger mega-luxury cruise ship plowing through the Gulf of Mexico at 21 knots. Physically we were wrapped tightly into a billion-dollar industry’s bosom of comfortable pampering, eating too much, water-sliding in places only a twenty-first century human would find reasonable, and jogging on treadmills at ten-thirty at night in the middle of the Caribbean sea while thousands of people drank and gambled and watched country line-dancing seminars all aboard this gleaming white technological marvel of nautical engineering.
In November 2017, we found ourselves lost, but lost moreso in a cultural mismatch of vacation priorities. I claim no moral superiority in my vacation interests, my tendency to seek quiet contemplative moments on some less-travelled gang staring out at the sea counting the swells of the ocean in a meditative trance, is just different from the bustle implied of basking in the sunlit upper decks amid a wash of music and pool noise while nursing a twelve dollar drink from a carved out pineapple. It’s just my preference and while my choice was relatively more difficult to find, it was available in heaping abundance compared to any other day of my life
I found some of those moments under the water as well.
A mask sealed over my eyes and nose. A plastic tube protruding from the waves. A camera.
A hundred meters off the shore of Roatán, Honduras I swam our past the tangle of wilting reefs and floated in water ten meters deep as I lolled along the border of fractal crops of sea life as they dropped into a bare sandy abyss disappearing into the clear water murk of the Caribbean.
A few days later we, all three of us, dropped from the back of an unsteady boat and floated above the protected reefs of a Mexican protected aquatic wilderness a few kilometers from where our behemoth of a cruise vessel sat seemingly so quietly at the Cozumel dock.
There are a hundred interesting moments on cruise ship, temporarily cut off from internet and media and land and slugging through the waves towards some unknown land which will inevitably be pocked with a nugget of tropical culture perfectly aligned to selling cheap souvenirs and overpriced beer to fat tourists. The trick… my trick to find a perfect moment in that clutter, was to ignore the feeling of being lost in that fury and find a moment of clarity, rare and precious for a land-locked doofus like me, under the water snorkeling with a camera in my hand.
In August 2017, after months of prep — yes, really… months — we found ourselves at the trail head of the mostly famous Berg Lake trail at the base of Mount Robson at the North Eastern edge of British Columbia in the Canadian Rockies.
We’d practice hiked through the river valley of Edmonton near home.
We’d dehydrated food for weeks.
We’d honed our packing skills and refined our carry-ins to the barest of essentials.
I chose to leave my dSLR at home and carried a pair of GoPro cameras and my iPhone 6 up the mountain to capture the experience. I kinda wish I had more luxurious photographic equipment in retrospect, but the images, slightly blurry and mediocre snapshots are what we got. The thumbnails below pop-open to bigger versions when you click them.
And then on a cool Monday morning in August four adults and two pre-teens sat lacing up their boots, hoisting their packs, double-checking their pockets, setting their phones to airplane mode, and stepping cautiously into the back-country.
This is a summary. It’s not advice. Nor a recommendation. It’s just the story of how six suburbanites, mostly-car-campers, former scouts or athletes or dancers or whatever, and almost entirely computer-facing-desk-jockeys decided to spend five days in the wilderness, disconnected from their wifi, and exploring the mountaintop domain reserved for those who dare to trek up and in and up even further.
Climbing Towards Lunch (Day 1)
There is not a lot to be said about the actual hiking part. It was walking… with packs. Upward. Usually upward.
For all their anticipatory anxiety about the climb, the two girls took to the trek with a kind of kid-like inevitability. I think both would have rather been on the couch back home watching YouTube or playing video games, but they were stuck here, with their parents on this march and they had little choice but to suck it up and hike it in.
The first half, say eleven (11) klicks was challenging but not difficult. It was a steady upward slog. A couple hundred meters of cumulative elevation gain of steadily narrowing and roughening terrain. We could have driven a sedan up the first five klicks, but by the time we passed Kinney Lake and got into the flats and up into the first real climbey part of the trail leading into Whitehorn, it was less even underfoot.
First one ascends through a lush cedar rain forest.
Then the shore of a calm mountain lake paces the trail.
(I would note that if you were watching the solar eclipse of August 21, 2017, it was during this stretch of the hike, the sky fully overcast, we noted that the slight dimming of the daylight was probably that same eclipse –at about 65% coverage– somewhere beyond our view.)
Then a rocky open flat (which is only open part of the time in lieu of a hillier route) is strewn moon-like with boulders as one toddles across the expanse set between two glorious mountain vistas.
Then the first of the switchbacks, a warm-up of what is to come a little further along, as the path gets rougher and steeper leading towards a riverside campground where we stopped for lunch on the first day.
A Rest Before the Inevitable (Day 1)
We took a long pause at Whitehorn. For lunch. To refill our water (which was the first time I got to use my water filter (an MSR MiniWorks EX) in the wild.
We poked around the rushing water. Rested. Read. Relaxed.
Had we known it was about to rain, we might have pushed a little faster. But as we sat looking ahead, not quite sure which of the hills in the distance we were about to climb, the sky was partly clouded and our legs were enjoying the un-weighted break, and the remoteness, not nearly as remote as we’d soon experience, felt remote enough and worth savouring.
I took a stumbling walk along the rocky bank of the river. I found a hidden cache of beer stuffed under a stone in the glacial-cold water, the glinting top of an aluminum can in the pale sun giving away the hiding spot. I left it untouched, but felt a bit of a pang of regret that I hadn’t thought of carrying at least one can up for a mountaintop reward.
But before long lunch was over, we were re-hoisting our still-heavy packs onto our shoulders, and setting onward.
And then the rain started.
Wet & Steep (Day 1)
When you get to the ‘bottom’ of the main climb, a level spot between the bridge crossing the river at the base of the falls and where the climbing begins, a number of little signs greets you: WARNING, STEEP HILL, NO WATER FOR 4 KM. SUPERVISE CHILDREN!
We had already filled our water, and on a hot day we might have figured out a backup bottle — but it was not a hot day. The light drizzle had begun and we were more interested in wrapping our packs in their waterproof covers. It was cool enough for jackets, despite any exertion, and the extra weight of extra drinking water was the least of our concerns.
To get a sense of this climb I feel like I need to share the elevation profile. The chart pictured is what I captured using my Garmin Fenix 3 GPS watch which tracked all our official hiking (up, down, and around at the top) as maps and (more interestingly) elevation graphs:
While the whole distance represents a cumulative climb (ups, downs and back ups all added up) that (concidentally) measured exactly 1000m, the stretch between 17 km and 21 km was roughly half that, or a hair over 500m of climb in 4 km. The math makes that an average grade of about 12.5% but incidental points on this chart show grades spanning from between 7% to the low 20%s.
To make it even more clear, the very tip of the Empire State Building in New York is 443m from ground level. So, imagine climbing that (plus a little more) but without stairs (though at about the same grade on average) with 50 pounds on your back in the rain… after just hiking 17 km prior.
Almost There Camp (Day 2)
We got to the top about two and a half hours later, dropped our bags in the first pair of available camping spots at the edge of the same river that a few short hops away dropped that climbing distance back down to the bottom, and there we camped for our first night.
And as much as I imagine I could write about that, the night still young we were so tired we set up, ate, cleaned up and quickly crawled into bed.
We’d rented a backpacking tent from MEC. It was a Volt 3 and it weighed about two pounds and worked extremely well, barely biting into the the 12×12 camp pads. It set up in five minutes and tore down in about the same (not counting drying out the dew and leftover raindrops clinging to the fly in the morning.)
I think that first morning my back hurt enough (did I mention I pulled a muscle in my back on day one?) that I just sucked it up and pushed through. We made oatmeal and coffee for breakfast, packed up as quick as we’d unpacked the night before, and by min-morning we were standing on the trail just outside our little site priming up the boots for another hike…
The Last of the Climb (Day 2)
…which by comparison was level and easy.
The sun came out (thankfully it was only warm on that second day of hiking and not the first) and we continued with the last 5 klicks of the accent. Though it was less of an accent, to be honest, and more of an escape from the forest into the wide open meadow-like expanse that marked the approach between the mountains towards the glacier and its lake.
Everyone was quite ready to be at camp, no matter how short the trek that day was destined to be. We plodded towards the lake, rested, and then plodded onward once again. And the sight that met us was spectacular from any angle, a crystal blue lake at the foot of a towering fortress of a mountain draped with the dirty white arms of an ancient glacier.
By this point we were a chilly 1650m of elevation and even in the heart of August with the full sun in the sky that’s hardly a recipe for a tropical clime.
And then suddenly we were at the Berg Lake campsite: hike complete.
If someone is reading this and planning their own family adventure into the back-country, I’m sure a million questions await, like:
How did the kids do? (Great, though they carried significantly less than us.)
What would you have done differently? (Hiking poles, better sleeping pads, and some kind of chair for my 40-year-old arse… logs are uncomfortable.)
How was the food? (Dehydrated food was great… until it gets cold which happens really fast on top of a mountain, so bring some way to keep your meal warm until you eat it all.)
Did you see any bears? (We had two pre-teens who NEVER stopped talking. This may have been a deliberate keep-the-bears away strategy, and it was successful.)
Did your back ever recover? (Well… you’ll need to read all about that in PART 2.)
It’s actually been a little while since our little travelling companion Vulk came along on a trip with us for some travel-photo shenanigans, but he stowed away with us on our recent accent of Mount Robson and the Berg Lake trail (a more in depth post about that coming soon!)
I fact, atop that hike I was not alone in my photoshooting of random toys. While we were sitting and sunning (as much as that is possible) by the glacier-fed lake one afternoon, another hiker showed up, posed a stuffed mountie bear in front of the crystal blue water with the massive ice wall in the background, and snapped a photo with her camera.
For those who are not familiar with this exercise, about three years ago we were looking for fun thing to do while travelling, and a way to add some interest to our vacation photos: in other words, a prop for some travel photography. Some people bring along a little garden gnome, or pose a favourite hat on statues, or something like that. I found this little red LEGO Mixel character, a limited run posable creature, who turned out to be super-expressive and light enough to pocket on even the most weight-sensitive expeditions (like last week up a mountain). And since then, he’s come with us around the country, to Iceland, and even Hawaii.
(I’m still not brave enough to pose him on a Disney property!)
Alas, Vulk has spent the bulk of his time in the last year in a drawer, waiting for some travel-based inspiration.
And so climbing up the back side of the Canadian Rockies’ highest peak seemed like a good opportunity to wake him from his plastic-slumber and take him out exploring:
Aside from our fictional adventures in the wilderness last week which was encoded in comic-strip form over on This is Pi Day, we actually had a fairly average camping trip last weekend.
Campfires, s’mores, tie-dying t-shirts (and socks) and time down by the lake.
I got to try out my cast iron waffle iron and (though it took an hour and a half to cook breakfast for seven people) it was a resounding success.
We built a slightly insane sandcastle and were the envy of the beach.
Chris and I serenaded the crew with our mediocre music skills, I on the violin and he on his guitar.
And we avoided getting rained on by mere minutes, having packed up the truck, closed the tailgate and only then felt a few raindrops.
I don’t think camping is nearly as relaxing as an adult as it was as a kid –the never ending setup, cooking, cleaning, and organizing– but it definitely was a nice break.
A photo gallery follows… noting that the best photos had clear pics of my friends’ kids so those will not show up here.
It snowed in the mountains this weekend.
I won’t say we couldn’t have picked a better weekend to go skiing near Banff this past weekend because (a) we didn’t pick the weekend and (b) the heaps of unruly weather made for terrible driving conditions, but it was a pretty nice day on the slopes of Sunshine Village ski resort especially if you like snow.
I, of course, skied with the GoPro… snapped to the side of my helmet for most of the morning until it popped off at lunch from cold… moisture… the three-year-old glue on the mounting… who knows.
There was a bit of wind. The powder was unlike anything I’ve ever seen –tho, that isn’t saying much as I’ve only skied about a dozen times in my life …but everyone was talking about it, so I’ll just go ahead and quote that: “The powder was epic!” -numerous dudes in much more expensive ski gear than me.
Claire experienced her first skiing trip to the mountains and after a two hour lesson was able to maneuver her way down a variety of green runs.
She did fall into a tree well once and had to be pulled out from a four foot hole under an evergreen, a story that she told numerous times that night and will be telling for weeks to come, but she survived and completed the run on her own two feet.
This meant that we got some pretty decent parking (rah-rahs the old guy in me) and were on the slopes shortly after nine am… in stark contrast to some of the other families who were part of the eight family group trip we were quasi-crashing. By 9 am the road was apparently backed up for about ten klicks and by later that morning most people were parking along the lead-in road as far back as just off the highway and then taking a shuttle the seven klicks up to the gondola base.
Lots of snow plus a Saturday equals crazy busy.
While Claire was in lessons Karin and I got some more challenging runs in with the A + C + N family, and then after polishing off a full pizza between a few of us at lunch we had a gentler afternoon on the green slopes with just the three of us.
The weather changed every fifteen minutes… literally. One run it would be bitterly cold and windy atop the lift. The very next ascent the sun was out and you could have skied in a t-shirt.
We were on the mountain for about as full of a day as we could have asked for, and squeezed in one last run up the Strawberry lift before they shut it down for the day, Claire finally kinda sorta almost getting the hang of swooshing her way down the mountainside.
And then it was done.
Karin took the ski out, and Claire piloted her “I fell under a tree!” story to a few strangers on the gondola ride back down. It was a slow, snowy, white-knuckled drive back to the hotel in Canmore, and we slept very that night… sore, tired and stuffed with junk food.
The nice thing about having a waterproof camera in Disneyland is that there are a few rides where you get really wet and 99% of the time you’ve stowed your delicate electronics into the waterproof pouches and you miss sharing moments like this, that look of combined horror and elation as you drop thirty feet down a ramp into a soft cushion of water.
I was a little worried. We’ve been on vacation for about two weeks and (obviously) I was not bringing along my violin. Someday, maybe, when the purpose of travel is a little more musical or when we go to some European villa and I can sit on the veranda playing, but for a hurried pair of trips through two major US cities… no. I packed up my violin in its case the evening we left for New York and there is stayed until I pulled it out last night. And, I was a little worried. Worried that all my practicing would be for nothing. Worried that I would be like a noob beginner again. Worried that it would be more scratching than music. But no. My fingers remembered where they were supposed to touch the strings and my arm remembered how to move the bow, and if anything using my legs to run marathons gave my digits the rest they needed to make some very lovely sounding practice in the basement as life spins back to regularly scheduled programming.
First of all, many thanks go out to Leon to the monumental effort he made in bringing five kayaks to the mountains for the express purpose of sharing the afternoon with a bunch of his crazy running friends.
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After a long day of running… after a good night of sleep… and after a delicious five star brunch at the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge overlooking Beauvert Lake, the last few stragglers found quiet spot to invade and unloaded a team’s worth of kayaks into the water.
Again, I’d only brought my GoPro and my iPhone for the weekend, and no nice SLR, but I think the SLR would have looked very silly strapped to my forehead. As it was, the GoPro was goofy enough. The few hundred photo-per-second it snapped while I was paddling around the lake were of varying quality, but most of them captured the moment of the serene calm of floating on the crystal water with spectacular mountain views all around.