Friday, May 30, 2014

Hike, Bike and Paddle - Pittsburgh style

When you coin the phrase, "outdoor adventure," images of wilderness waterways, primeval forests and rare wildlife species often spring to mind.

However, you don't always have to go out of the city to enjoy outdoor activities. That's certainly true in Pittsburgh, where I spent an afternoon hiking, biking and paddling, all in an urban environment, a few days ago.

We began our "hike " - it was about a 1.5 km jaunt from the Wyndham Grand Hotel in downtown Pittsburgh to the Golden Triangle Bike Rental shop where our adventure would begin in earnest. Brenda Miller of Visit Pittsburgh led a group of 15 of us out-of-towners on our "warm-up walk," with Mike Carroll of Bike Pittsburgh accompanying us on his bike, as he would be the leader of the cycling portion of our pedal-paddle outing.
The bikes are all lined up and ready to ride.

Once there, we fitted ourselves out with helmets, saddled up and off we went...

To lunch.

A short pedal down to the Smithfield Street Bridge - the first of many bridges we could cross over (and under) that day - brought us across the Monongahela River to the Buca Di Beppo Italian Restaurant. A quick feed of pasta, salad, chicken and bread tucked into our bellies, we mounted up and headed out once more.

Pittsburgh is a pretty cycle-friendly city, although it has not always been that way. These days, though, cyclists have unlimited access to the T-trains and buses.

"We've been working on making that a reality for the past several years, and it's just the last two years the transit system has provided unlimited access," says Carroll, the events co-ordinator for the bicycle advocacy group.

Our trusty two-wheeled steeds got us to the base for Venture Outdoors, the outfit that would guide us along the kayaking portion of our journey.

Once we donned our life jackets and our safety talk and instruction were completed, we headed for our kayaks to test the waters of the Allegheny River.

The weather had turned quite nice for our paddle. Earlier this morning, thundershowers threatened, and it was overcast when we hopped on our bikes, but since then the sun had started to shine.

As we got into the rhythm of paddling upstream, I lost track of time, as I often do when canoeing or kayaking. It did have a unique feel for me, as I'd never paddled in an urban environment like a city in my 50 years of paddling. But as I'm fond of saying, "A bad day paddling beats a good day doing anything else." And it doesn't really matter whether it's in a city, on a rural pond, or a wilderness river.

We made several stops along the way for guide Nik Brown to provide some interpretive talks about the history and highlights of the area. At one point, we were sitting under the Roberto Clemente Bridge; we also paddled underneath the Andy Warhol Bridge.

Guide Stacia Fe Gillen keeps on eye on the paddlers.

Further along, I saw a fish jump. That's right - a fish. In an urban river. Now, I know you can fly-fish for trout in Calgary's Bow River, right in the city - but Pittsburgh is much more developed with a lot less green space than the southern Alberta city.

Brown told us there are several different species of fish you can find in the city's rivers.

"I've caught rock bass, striped bass and even smallmouth bass," he told us. "It used to be, all you'd catch was catfish, but that's changing as we've cleaned up the river."

The biggest continuing threat to the rivers is the city's storm sewer system. Because of the vast amount of pavement in the city, the water runs down, often unchecked, into the rivers.

That's still a far cry from what it used to be like before efforts were made to improve the city's quality of air and water.

You can even eat some of the fish caught in the river. But like a good boater, just don't go overboard.

"There is a guide you have to check in terms of how many of a particular species of fish you can eat, to be safe from toxicity," Brown says.

All too soon, it's time to turn around and paddle back to the take-out, where another bike ride back to Golden Triangle awaits us.

As we near the dock, the same geese who were there when we left are still swimming around. A pair of mallards have joined them in the water, and as they float by, they quack at me. They seem to say, "We think the river's okay, so don't worry about us."

Nature survives. Even in the city.

Interested in learning how to catch catfish in Pittsburgh's rivers?
This video should help.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Travel writers can be a conflicted lot - and in different ways

In A Sense of Place, Michael Shapiro's landmark collection of interviews with some of the world's most prolific, widely-read and best-loved travel writers, he talks with Frances Mayes, author of Under the Tuscan Sun. Toward the end of the piece, she expresses a conundrum she always feels as a travel writer.

She says, "I always feel the split between the desire to stay, the desire for home, the desire for the nest, the desire to gather people around in the home, and that equal passion to shut the door and go, to leave it all behind and seek what's out there."

A must-read for travel writers

It's like she tapped into my brain with a vacuum, sucked out my emotions and translated them into words.

Every time I get ready to leave for a trip, I always feel a sense of loss, a longing to stay, a sadness as I go off and leave my loved ones behind while heading off to adventure in another part of the world. Of course, because my group of loved ones includes three parrots, the part about "the nest" hits particularly close to home.

Whether I'm going on a three-day paddling trip in Georgia, a two-week tour through the jungle lodges of Borneo or a 10-day tour somewhere around Europe, I always have this feeling of not wanting to leave - knowing full well that I will enjoy immensely whatever adventures come my way in my journeys.

It's funny, I hadn't stopped to think that maybe other travel writers - not all, but some - shared similar kinds of feelings.

But it makes sense that we would. We all have families that we leave for various periods of time to go off gallivanting around the world without them (at least, most of them time) to seek stories to tell on our return, and, hopefully, earn some kind of living at it.

Neither had I really stopped to think about something else Mayes said in the story, Yearning for the Sun. She said, "...for me, the writing partly comes from the tension between those two things. And it's odd, because they both involve a sense of place..." - in this case, the place left behind and the place that's just ahead.

When you think about it, some of the world's best writing comes as the result of some kind of conflict; often, it's some type of external conflict, like a war, a crime, or similar struggle involving two or more parties. In the case of Mayes - and perhaps other travel writers - it's an internal conflict, like the one she describes between the urges to stay and go.

I wonder, if there was not that conflict, that tension - would there be travel writing? If so, how good would it be? Surely not all good stories come from a place of conflict...or do they?

That's one of those questions that could be debated ad nauseum, and one that may be best debated over a flagon of ale or keg of rum (or urn of coffee, for those who don't imbibe).

For me, these days, another conflict arises.

Because I have a real interest in trying to conserve what is left of our planet - its air, its water, its forests, and all the creatures and plants that live there - I often wonder if my desire to travel and tell stories means I do not always travel as lightly as possible.

I do want to travel in a manner that is easiest on the environment; however, like most humans in our western society, convenience is important to me, too.
Salkantay Lodge, Peruvian Andes: a good eco-lodge

Often, travel writers have limited choices in terms of these many of these factors,as the transportation and accommodations are often pre-arranged without their input. I know I have stayed at some of the best eco-lodges in the world. I've also stayed at some others that I can almost guess with a certainty that the environment was not a top priority.

However, just the fact that we try to be aware of this, and try to write stories about those places and means of getting there that are the the best eco-friendly options, has an impact on the positive side. At least, that is my hope.

Time will tell if that is the case, or not.

As for my own internal conflict...that may be an unending struggle that may never quite subside. And I don't know that I would want it to...not completely, anyway.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Last Flight spins a cautionary tale about protecting nature

I recently re-read the book, The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw: One Woman's Fight to Save the World's Most Beautiful Bird, written by Bruce Barcott, a Seattle-based writer whose works include The Measure of a Mountain: Beauty and Terror on Mount Rainier.

Published in 2008, it recounts the uphill battle of Sharon Matola, director of the Belize Zoo, against Fortis, a Canadian-based company that wanted to, and eventually built, a hydro-electric dam in Belize.

A book about a bird - and much more.
If you live in B.C., you probably recognize that name - it's the same company that supplies natural gas to heat our homes, at least in the Lower Mainland.

The battle took place in the first half of the first decade in this new century. The company proposed a dam across the Macal River that would flood large areas of jungle and essentially destroy habitat vital to rare scarlet macaws as well as jaguars and other wildlife; the area also contained grounds and more than likely artifacts sacred to the Mayan culture.

The book describes how Matola tried to organize resistance, using every legal means necessary to stop the dam. Studies indicated the dam built there would not make that much difference in terms of increasing electric power for the country, but too many people had invested in it to care about unimportant items like, does it really help residents?

I already knew the results of the battle before I read the book, having followed it and published articles about it when I was editor of the Calgary Psittascene, the newsletter of the Calgary Parrot Club from 2001 to 2003. Although Barcott never mentions it in the book, wildlife artist Robert Bateman was very involved in the battle as well, working with Probe International to make people aware of the situation and to create pressure to perhaps stop the dam being built in that particular location.

However, even though I knew the result, I found the book captivating, a real page-turner. It was as full of drama and suspense as any fictional thriller.

And kind of like a horror story, too - a bit scary.

I say scary, because every time it seemed the people working against the dam actually came up with a good argument, legal precedent was somehow gotten around by various means, including greasing the right government or judicial palms or just outright ignoring environmental laws and daring people to do anything about it.

Sounds kind of familiar, doesn't it?

It's a cautionary tale, a reminder to all of us about how we must be on guard against this type of environmental bullying in the name of progress, given some of the issues going on in B.C. right now with respect to the Enbridge situation.

Some of you may be scratching your heads, wondering why I'm writing about this in what is essentially (supposed to be) a travel blog.

A toucan enjoys a pineapple chunk in the Belize Zoo. 
Obviously, it has something to do with parrots...and anyone who read my previous blog post may recall that the very first time I saw parrots was in Belize. But it was also the first time I ever went paddling in a sea kayak. Completing the hat trick of "firsts," it was the first international trip I'd ever taken to anywhere.

That was way back in 1991. That trip really infused me with the idea of becoming a travel writer - a travel writer that tries to help connect people with nature ... through my writing and photos, trying to make a difference in helping preserve our natural environment, worldwide.

It took a while for me to get there, transitioning from being a sports writer, and while you could argue the journey is still continuing, I think you can see, I developed a bit of a soft spot for Belize, and just why I was so disappointed to see a Canadian company engaging in something like this.

I think the next house I purchase will have a fireplace that requires wood (or my preferred alternative, one of those artificial fire logs that burns for four hours) so I don't have to pay any fees to Fortis, a company that, throughout the process, demonstrated that the best interests of the environment were not its priority.

I still have a soft spot for Belize, I have a friend, Nikki Buxton, who is the managing director of the Belize Bird Rescue. I've met other writers who have also been there - some as writers, one as an archaeologist - so I do feel a connection to the place. While I may never return there, I hate to think that all the aspects and qualities that I found so attractive as a traveller are being denigrated by short-sighted governments and businesses.

Of course, this is not the only place in the world where this is happening. It is happening right in our own backyard. Recent cuts to B.C. Ferry services by short-sighted government bureaucrats threatens a very lucrative, viable, and sustainable economic element in the province, that of tourism.

Like Matola, we need to let the government know through letters, petitions, calls to MLAs, emails and social media that this kind of behaviour is not acceptable.

Because as Edmund Burke once stated, "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."

Wild scarlet macaws in Honduras.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

So just where DO you go to see wild parrots?

People reading my blog probably don't have a hard time figuring out my two main passions.

They don't even really need to read a post, just see the title.

Of course, one of the earliest posts I wrote featured lists of my favourite places to paddle. However, I have yet to post a list of my favourite places to view wild parrots.

While you can paddle a canoe or kayak anywhere there is a lake, river, ocean or even a pond, viewing parrots in the wild involves a bit more of an effort, at least if you live in temperate North America, and if you want to see them in their native habitat (sorry, San Francisco, your Telegraph Hill flock won't be featured here.)

I've been very fortunate that I've travelled to several places in the world to see wild parrots. But there are several other places I would still like to visit in my lifetime, to view wild parrots.

I saw my first wild parrots in Belize, in 1991. However, at the time, I had not been overcome by "parrot passion," so I did not spend a lot of time trying to see them or take pictures. 

That changed in 1994, when I met Nikki, our African grey parrot

Since then, I've been on a journey to see them, write about them, and where possible, help them.

Here then are two lists: one of places I've seen wild parrots, the other places I want to see wild parrots.
A Cayman brac parrot, seen along the Mastic Trail.
Wild Parrots: Experienced

1. The Cayman Islands. There are two main species of parrots here, the Cayman parrot and Cayman Brac parrot. I've seen them both, although I only caught a brief glimpse of the endangered Brac parrot on the island of the same name. The Cayman parrot was much more co-operative; I saw several members of a flock during a day-long hike on the Mastic Trail on Grand Cayman Island.

2. Ecuador: La Selva Lodge. During a five-day kayak trip down the Rio Shiripuno in Ecuador's Amazon rainforest, I saw and heard several parrots and macaws - but all at a distance. I then spent three days at a lodge where I was able to see them better at the Yasuni Clay Lick, just off the Rio Napo. I saw several pionus parrots and some Mealy Amazons, but they mainly stayed up in the trees, so I still could not take great photos.

3. Peru: Heath River Lodge. This was a much better experience than the one in Ecuador. We stayed hidden on a floating blind in the middle of the river and watched green-winged macaws and several species of Amazons gather at the lick and in the trees surrounding it. A wonderful experience on the river that actually forms the border between Peru and Bolivia in that part of South America.

4. Puerto Rico. I saw parrots here as part of the annual World Parrot Trust parrot lovers' cruise, a once-a-year event structured around existing cruise schedules that allows parrot people on the cruise to pay a bit extra and visit centres around the Caribbean and Central America that have active parrot conservation projects underway. We actually went to the breeding/rehab centre on the island, as the Puerto Rican parrot is very threatened, and almost became extinct. It is now recovering as a wild population.

5. Dominica. This was another stop on the WPT parrot lovers' cruise. Like all parrots on the Caribbean Islands, the parrots here are very unique - and all very much at risk as they are endemic to very specific habitats and populations can easily be threatened by disease or natural disasters like hurricanes. 

Wild Parrots: Bucket List

1. Central Africa. Since I live with two African grey parrots, it should come as no surprise that I want to see their wild cousins in their natural habitat. Unfortunately, political difficulties and economic instability in the countries in this region make it difficult to set up successful ecotours to see these marvelous birds. It also makes it a prime target for smugglers, something the World Parrot Trust is constantly trying to eliminate.

2. Indonesia. These islands are home to several species of cockatoos as well as eclectus parrots. The Indonesian Parrot Project did run some ecotours here for a few years, and it looks like they are gearing up to get that program going again after a few years' hiatus.
A pair of green-winged macaws in Peru.

3. Peru: Manu and/or Tambopata. I was actually supposed to go to Manu the trip I went to Heath River, but there was some kind of airstrip difficulty, so I had to either go home or go to Heath. I went to heath. Tambopata is arguably THE bucket list destination for parrot lovers.

4. Brazil: the Pantanal. This area of Brazil is the last remaining spot where viable populations of the giant blue Hyacinth macaws can be seen. If you're lucky, you may also see other rare wildlife on tours in this area, including jaguars.

5. Australia. Not only is it the land down under, it's also the land of cockatoos, cockatiels and budgies. And a kookaburra or two. People who know me cannot believe I have not already been there, it is such a birders' - and parrot lovers' - paradise. While I'm there, I should probably check out the kea parrots over in New Zealand, as well.

Like their cousins in South America, African greys also eat clay - 
but from the ground rather than cliffs.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Making like Diver Dan in the South China Sea

When I was a young shaver - a really young shaver, we're talking pre-school, here - my favourite TV program was Diver Dan. My then "girlfriend" Diane introduced me to the kids' show, and we used to play "pretend" where I was the deep-sea diver and she was the mermaid, an ill-fated TV romance that never allowed the lovers to meet.

THIS is Diver Dan (on the left).
That spawned a brief interest in Sea Hunt, a more adult adventure series that involved scuba diving. 

As a kid, it just didn't interest me as much; let's face it, how could an adult series compete with talking fish puppets - especially one named "Baron Barracuda?"

Flash forward about 30 years. I'm in the Caribbean for the first time, and I'm snorkeling. It was an incredible experience, snorkeling around the cays of Belize. 
This is Lloyd Bridges.
NOT Diver Dan.

A year later, I earned my PADI open-water scuba diving certification. It eventually led to adventures like the once I had at the Maui Ocean Center , where I went diving with sharks.

Going deep sea diving never really entered my mind.

At least, not until I visited Malaysia a year after my shark dive.

We were in Kota Kinabalu, a city in Sabah, Borneo's northeastern-most province. Specifically, I was on Sapi Island, a short boat ride from the city harbour across the South China Sea.

Thanks to Borneo Sea Walking I would finally get to make like Diver Dan! 
This is not Diver Dan, either.

"Sea-walking is a really cool experience, especially if you've never done any diving (although some people do experience a bit of claustrophobia). It's very safe and very easy, with a minimum of fuss and equipment.

Essentially, from the diving platform, you put on a pair of weight shoes, don one of their helmets that rest on your shoulders, then walk down a ladder into the ocean to the sea floor.

It's not all that deep, maybe 10 or 12 feet, certainly not one atmosphere (33 feet - the depth at which decompression becomes a factor), but you are completely underwater, while a slew of different fishes swim by.

The air pumped into the helmets from a pump on the surface creates enough pressure to keep the water from filling into the helmet, even though the bottom is open...essentially, it's kind of like wearing a plastic garbage can over your head with a glass portal in the front so you can see. You can even reach under the lip while underwater to adjust your glasses,
Diver Dan.
scratch your nose, etc.

I would have preferred to actually to walk a little bit along the surface, but I guess the hoses only go so far. Once you get to the bottom, you follow a rope anchored to the bottom so no one wanders off and gets into trouble. 

While there, some scuba divers take pictures and videos to burn on a CD so you have something to help you remember your experience.

After about 20 minutes, it's time to climb back out and rejoin the group on the surface.
Okay, close enough. We'll call this Diver Dan.
Or Diver John in Borneo.

We did this activity in the morning. I actually wanted to go back to the same company in the afternoon and try another experience offered by the company: they have underwater scooters you can ride, with the scooter containing an air pump for your helmet so you can ride off underwater on your own, and pretend you're James Bond fighting Largo in Thunderball (albeit with a much smaller scooter!) 

However, they were concerned about an incoming storm, so they were not letting people go out in the afternoon. So I had to be content with a bit of snorkeling.

Still, it was a neat experience. 

Especially for someone who grew up watching Diver Dan.

"Below in the deep, there's adventure and danger;
That's where you'll find Diver Dan!
The sights that he sees are surprising and stranger
Than ever you'll see on the land!"

You too can be "Diver (fill in your name here)" in Borneo!